Georgia seeks special designation for Conasauga River

Two environmental groups are seeking special protective status for The Conasauga River that would make the north Georgia-east Tennessee stream an "Outstanding National Resource Water" under the Clean Water Act.

The recent petition filed by Environment Georgia and the Southern Environmental Law Center would afford the Conasauga the highest protection allowed by federal law, and rank it as Georgia's first to achieve that status. Georgia is the only southeastern state, besides Mississippi, with no ONRW waterways.

“The Conasauga River deserves to be Georgia’s first Outstanding National Resource Water,” Jennette Gayer, an advocate with Environment Georgia, said in a release announcing the petition. “The headwaters of the Conasauga support one of the most biodiverse river ecosystems in the country plus it is a truly breathtaking part of our state to visit and enjoy.”

The designation sought would protect against both point and non-point sources of pollution. New point sources of pollution, such as pipes, that are channeled into the designated segment are prohibited. In turn, regulations that preserve buffer zones and ensure smart growth are implemented across the watershed to curtail non-point pollution.

The Conasauga starts in the Chattahoochee National Forest and runs up to the Tennessee border where it loops briefly into Tennessee before running back into Georgia and down through Dalton. The ONRW designation would begin at the headwaters of the river, which lie within the Cohutta Wilderness Area, and end before the Alaculsy Valley, a few miles before the Georgia-Tennessee state line. Its waters support paddling and trout fishing and feed a downstream snorkeling hole where outdoor enthusiasts can sneak a peak at more than 90 different fish species and 25 species of freshwater mussels. Twelve of these fish and mussel species are federally designated as endangered or threatened species.

The petition was submitted to the Environmental Protection Division, which, after reviewing the proposal, will open a public comment period and convene a public hearing. In September, the issue will be brought to the board of the Department of Natural Resources where a vote will decide whether to grant the protection.