Dawson County hike reveals issues for Etowah River

Article Published in Pickens County Progress 04/14/11

Dawson County hike reveals issues for Etowah River

By Jeff Warren

staff writer

Down and down they hiked,

about 30 trekkers ambling deeper

into the Dawson Forest Wildlife

Management Area on an organized

hike, Saturday, April 2. Choreographed

by representatives of

the Coosa River Basin Initiative

and the Sierra Club, this hike

would inform participants of the

environmental impact posed by a

new reservoir planned for the

land the hikers trudged.

The Etowah Water and Sewer

Authority has plans to partner

with American Water Corporate,

a private company, to build a

1,200-acre reservoir on Shoal

Creek in Dawson County. Most

of the lake would fill onto land

presently owned by the City of

Atlanta, the 10,000-acre Atlanta

Tract, bought by the city decades

ago for a northern airport that

never developed.

At present, the Georgia Department

of Natural Resources

leases the Atlanta Tract for use as

part of the Dawson Forest

Wildlife Management Area.

If the planned reservoir goes

forward, partners American

Water Corporate and the Etowah

Water and Sewer Authority (the

freshwater-wastewater entity of

Dawson County government)

would buy land from Atlanta to

build the reservoir.

"Last week [March 31], the

legislature passed a public-private

partnership bill [Georgia

Senate Bill 122] to allow local

governments to partner with private

companies to build reservoirs

and get state funding," said

Joe Cook of the Coosa River

Basin Initiative. "When [Governor]

Deal signs that bill, that will

set in place the law that will

allow this partnership. It was

driven in large part by this project."

Built as a water supply project,

the proposed reservoir would

include a dam on Shoal Creek

plus pumping stations on the

Etowah and Amicalola rivers

nearby with pipelines connecting

these stations to the lake pool. A

separate southbound pipeline

would deliver stored water to a

customer or customers, those

being municipal water systems.

As proposed, the reservoir would

deliver 80 million gallons daily.

Right now the prospective

customer remains undisclosed,

but the delivery pipeline is to be

built southward into north Fulton

County. It is presumed the partners

will sell water to Atlanta.

In 2009, U.S. District Court

Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that

Georgia has no authorization to

use Lake Lanier (built by the

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

as a water supply. Cook said

Georgia now seeks to overcome

Magnuson's ruling by asking

Congress to directly authorize

such use of the lake as a water

supply source, a deep watering

hole for Atlanta’s thirst.

But if Congress says no, Atlanta's

water draw from Lanier

could be reduced to 1970s withdrawal

levels, Cook said. That

spigot tightening is set to arrive

in July 2012, he said, if nothing


"If we can't have access to

Lanier, then alternative sources

are needed," Cook explained.

"This [Shoal Creek reservoir

project] is one proposal. That's

what's driving this."

Water collected within the

Shoal Creek reservoir will flow

to customers outside Dawson

County, Cook said, not to Dawson

residents. The Etowah Water

and Sewer Authority has another

new reservoir in the works to

supply the needs of Dawson

Countians, he said. That lake is

to be constructed east of Dawsonville

and south of State Highway

136 on Russell Creek,

upstream from the Etowah River

and near the Etowah River Road.

Before any proposed reservoir

can be built, it must gain approval

from the U.S. Army

Corps of Engineers through a

formal permitting application

process. "I'm with the U.S. Fish

and Wildlife Service," said Eric

Prowell, along for the hike. "We

play an integral role in the permitting

process for reservoirs."

To gain Corps approval for

reservoir construction, the project

developer must prove the

need for the dam project and

must demonstrate that no reasonable

alternative exists for supplying

that need. The U.S. Fish and

Wildlife Service is normally involved

during the permit application

process. Dawson County's

Russell Creek Reservoir is already

permitted, Prowell said.

So with Dawson County

water needs now set to be supplied

well into the future from

the coming Russell Creek Reservoir,

why exactly is the Etowah

Water and Sewer Authority also

pushing for a dam on Shoal


The Shoal Creek water is for

sale, Cook said. Water Authority

General Manager Brooke Anderson

aims to wholesale water

from the Shoal Creek reservoir to

a needy Atlanta, Cook explained,

with the revenue gained to be

used keeping water rates low for

Dawson County residents.

Prowell joined in the Saturday

hike to add information and to

net samples of aquatic wildlife

subject to be lost if the Shoal

Creek reservoir is built. While

most hikers parked packs beside

large Shoal Creek for a picnic

lunch, Prowell and some volunteers

waded in the stream with a

large, fine-mesh net. In rubberized

wading pants, Prowell

stomped the stream bed, stirring

creek critters downstream into

the mesh.

"None of the species we will

see today live in lakes," Prowell

told hikers near the start of their

jaunt. "They live in moving

water to eat, shelter and spawn.

What they eat is insects, and the

insects live in the vegetation at

the bottom of the stream, and

you need dissolved oxygen for

those things to grow. And you

need sunlight penetrating to the

[stream] bottom for that vegetation

to grow."

The splash of moving water,

churning round rocks on its

downstream flow, dissolves oxygen

into stream water. The presence

of oxygen brings the stream

alive with active water dwellers.

"There is greater complexity

in shallow areas," Prowell said.

"It's kind of like the shallow

areas are the cities of the stream."

A greater number of species congregate

in the shallows, he explained.

Netting took place about a

mile and a half upstream from

where Shoal Creek flows into the

Etowah River, a spot to be underwater

if the reservoir is built. In

20 minutes, the Prowell-led effort

turned up about a half dozen

live specimens for closer examination.

Hikers crowded round on

shore as Prowell held up a clear

plastic vessel displaying Shoal

Creek residents, finger-sized or

less, just snatched from their


Only one was something you

might have seen somewhere before,

a black tail shiner––for all

the world, a minnow.

Prowell pointed out the oddlooking

sculpin. Shovel-shaped

at its fore end, this fish flattens

out to cling to the bottom in high

stream flows, Prowell explained.

Nightmarish, the dark helgramite

(about two inches long)

sported centipede legs. This gillbreathing

water insect owns a

pair of pincers at the head and a

retractable trunk-like sucker for

a tail. A ringer for that sciencefiction

earwig in The Wrath of

Kahn Star Trek movie, this unforgettable

water-breathing insect

was the stuff dreams are

made of––bad dreams.

Present in force were the

darter clan, the bronze darter,

speckled darter and Etowah

darter all represented in the sample.

A threatened species, the

Etowah darter made the strongest

visual impression.

"The star of the Etowah

Basin," Prowell said. "Colorful.

Pretty. Endemic to the Etowah

watershed, it's only here." Its fins

are always red, Prowell said, and

around this time of year, its belly

is turquoise for attracting a mate,

he explained.

"All the darters are imperiled

because they live in these shallow

water habitats," Prowell

said. Such habitats are first impacted

by stream silting, he explained.

The Etowah darter

spawns between rocks on the

stream bottom, he said. Where

silt enters a stream and fills in between

rocks in the creek bed,

darters cannot spawn, Prowell

said. You find darters go away as

you move downriver on the

Etowah toward Canton and increased

land development, he


Endangered species, both

Etowah and Cherokee darters

can be found in Shoal Creek,

Prowell said. The Cherokee

darter is rarer. None turned up in

the Saturday sampling. The

amber darter resides downstream

of Shoal Creek in the Etowah

River, Prowell added. All three

would be negatively impacted if

the proposed Shoal Creek reservoir

is built, he said.

Prowell explained that darters

are a valuable part of the natural

food chain, small fish being food

for larger ones. Darters also

serve as something of a canary in

the coal mine. Where a darter has

survival issues because of infringed

water quality, water

drawn from that same stream

might be less than the best for

drinking purposes, Prowell said.

The Shoal Creek dam project

will include a 40-mile southgoing

pipeline, presumed to be

for carrying drinking water into

Atlanta. Daily 80 million gallons

collected from the Etowah and

Amicalola Rivers and Shoal

Creek would leave headed south.

"Every drop of it would leave

this watershed and go to into the

Chattahoochee," Prowell said.

"That's out of the Etowah and

never returned," Cook said, "drying

Canton and [Lake] Allatoona."

Cook said the plan calls for

pumping water from the Etowah

and Amicalola into the Shoal

Creek reservoir in winter, when

river levels are usually high.

"But from August to November,

flows on the Etowah and Amicalola

do not add up to the 220

million gallons per day they plan

to pump into the reservoir," he

said. "The big question is if the

flows here can sustain the removal

and still flow the


Prowell said, "Anything that's

built on the Etowah is controversial,

because every bit of water in

the Etowah flows out of state

into Alabama."

Cook said Alabama's governor

has told Governor Deal that

if Deal does not back off on

reservoir building in Georgia, Alabama

won't be back to the table

for further Tri-State water talks,

talks to iron out downstream

water supply issues affecting Alabama

and Florida. If those talks

break down, Congress could take

a harsher stance toward approving

Georgia's request for further

water draws from Lake Lanier

for Atlanta, Cook said.

"If we can't play nice with Alabama

and Florida, we can't get

what we want out of Lanier," he


Cook said State Senator

Butch Miller of Gainesville recently

secured $2 million of state

money for a study to see if Lake

Lanier might be raised two feet

for water supply purposes. Two

more feet at Lanier could be accomplished

without new construction

and could mean an

additional 26 billion gallons for

water supply, Cook said.

The reservoir on Shoal Creek

is projected to provide 16 billion

gallons for water supply at an estimated

construction cost of $650

million, Prowell said.

It remains a question whether

the Etowah River could sustain

the water removal the project

would bring.

"We see this Shoal Creek

reservoir as the biggest threat to

the Etowah River and Coosa

River basin just now," Cook said.

Any river most anywhere

eventually becomes a most valuable

resource as a water source

for industry and for dilution of

public wastewater discharge,

Prowell explained. Any large

municipal wastewater treatment

plant needs a flowing stream of

considerable volume to accept

the plant's treated output and render

it harmless downstream, he


Right now, Dawson County

sprays its treated sewer water

onto a drain field, Prowell said,

an alternative land-based system

that avoids the need to discharge

treated wastewater into a stream.

But with expected population

growth, Dawson County faces a

switch to point-source discharge

of its wastewater into a stream or

river within the next five years,

Prowell predicted.

"Then they will need waste

assimilation available in the

Etowah," he said. "That will be

gone if they sell all their water to



Jeff Warren can be reached at



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