Just outside of Thomaston Ga., a red dirt driveway winds its way through a forest of sweet gums, oaks, pines and beech trees, marking the lone driven track on a large swath of land. It's peaceful here. The trees rustle softly and the rippling of the river is heard before being seen.
Sam Brewton, a semi-retired urologist and former mayor of Thomaston, parks his beige pickup on a grassy bluff. Ahead is a small log cabin he built by hand years ago, and in front of that, the Flint River, a waterway that stretches from metropolitan Atlanta southwest for over 260 miles before merging with the Chattahoochee River at Lake Seminole near the border of Florida. Lake Seminole then empties into the Sunshine State as the Apalachicola River.
Here near Thomaston, the Flint has space to stretch out. It's about 600-feet wide and speckled with islands of Shoals spider-lily grass. Named for the stones found along its shores, the Flint has been by Brewton's side for much of his life. First in his childhood, second as a property owner, doctor and father, and now as he retires and fights to prevent his cherished river from turning into a dry ditch. For over the last decade, the river's water levels have dropped due to the triple whammy of rapid development upstream, heavy agricultural use downstream and drought throughout the state.
"We've seen flows down so low you can walk across the river without getting wet," said Brewton. "The rain, which has been heavy this summer, is a temporary solution and helps for a few weeks, but once it stops then you're right back to overuse of what's remaining."
The fight over the Flint River and its water is not new. Like many rivers in the Southeast, the Flint was once water-rich and full for much of the year, a fact that attracted developers, municipalities, power companies, farms and nature enthusiasts to its shores -- all of which now vie for water rights.
The Flint is also part of a larger battle known as the tri-state water war between Georgia, Florida and Alabama. At issue is how to fairly share water from two river basins - the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa - that begin in Georgia. It's a water resource tug of war that has earned the Flint the undesirable title of "Americas Second Most Endangered River" by American Rivers, a non-profit organization that works to preserve the country's waterways.
The Flint is at a significant tipping point and there's a lot at risk, said Ben Emanuel, American Rivers, rapidly listing the endangered gulf sturgeon, endangered and threatened mussel species, the kayaking and canoeing culture, and a sustainable water supply for people and agriculture.
"It's fundamentally alarming to see rivers running dry in the eastern part of the country," continued Emanuel. "In the last decade around the upper Flint region, the main river has reached alarmingly low flows and major streams have been dewatered throughout drought and non drought years."
According to American Rivers' stats, since the mid-70s, the rate of the low river flows have dropped 40 percent, while in the upper Flint and its tributaries, it has decreased over 70 percent.
But, solving these multifaceted water allocation problems is tough. As a step in the right direction, Emanuel suggests that all entities with a stake in having a healthier river need to collaborate. American Rivers and Flint Riverkeeper, of which Brewton is a founding member, have recently examined flows in the upper half of the Flint and have published a report that details a handful of solutions towards this end.
These two organizations are now working with municipal water providers, residents, businesses, landowners, faith-based organizations, and state officials to carry out their vision. A similar approach could work in the agricultural hub, or lower river, of the Flint as well, said Emanuel.
Additionally, Emanuel calls on the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to develop ecologically-based, mandatory healthy flow obligations for times of both drought and non-drought.
"It would be great to see the state agency take the lead in developing a system of reasonable and sustainable water use throughout the system, such as targets for healthy flows and issuing permits accordingly," said Emanuel. One way to achieve this would be by expanding the "Flint River Drought Protection Act," which focuses on limiting agricultural use of water during drought.
Georgia EPD is the primary state agency in charge of managing water resources throughout the state. One aspect of their mandate is permitting for surface water and groundwater withdrawals.
However, EPD does not support an overhaul of the Act at this time. "We think it would be premature to undertake a more comprehensive revision of the Drought Protection Act until we have a better understanding of the basin and its likely response to specific management tools," emailed Gail Cowie, a Watershed Manager with EPD.
Instead, EPD is focusing on a bill known as SB 213 – an act to amend the Flint River Drought Protection Act. The main changes to the bill, wrote Cowie, include the addition of water efficiency requirements in all permits for agricultural water withdrawals, and protection for surface water flows provided by augmentation projects. The bill would also commission studies to help EPD make better-informed changes so that the Act could undergo a more comprehensive revision in a few years.
Cowie explains that it is difficult to precisely answer the question of “how much water is available?” because of a lack of information on the streamflow thresholds necessary to protect the values and benefits provided the Flint River system – ecological, recreational, water use, and other benefits.
Brewton and the Flint Riverkeeper group are skeptical about these assertions and vocally oppose the bill. Gordon Rogers, Executive Director for Flint Riverkeeper, says the bill would fundamentally change Georgia's water law and weaken riparian rights, all the while protecting Atlanta's burgeoning water supply above all else.
Rogers says that the language in the bill referring to surface flow augmentation projects includes a controversial technique known as aquifer storage and recovery (ASR). His concern is that ASR will prevent downstream users access to "reasonable use" of any water added by these projects and could have negative impacts on water levels in the river basin. The bill stalled at the end of the 2013 Legislative Session but will be revisited next year.
Back on Brewton's land, the Flint River shimmers in the August sunshine. Brewton is talking about his grandchildren and the fishing and camping they've done that summer along the river's shore. For a moment the politics and strife surrounding the river seem far away despite the object of dispute being a few yards ahead.
Brewton turns to me and says, "You see, the people who are involved in the organization I represent are not environmentalist tree huggers walking around in flip flops, we're professionals who simply don't want to see every natural resource in Georgia destroyed in the name of development. And if we don't do something now there won't be something left except concrete and asphalt parking lots. That's a personal goal of mine to preserve something natural in Georgia."