Flint River nation's second most endangered, report by advocacy group states

A national river advocacy group has identified the Flint River as the second-most endangered in the country in a 2009 report scheduled for release today.

The revival of a decades-old proposal to build several dams on the Middle Flint near Thomaston led to its listing by American Rivers. The nonprofit, whose 65,000 members and supporters seek to protect U.S. rivers, has issued a top 10 list of endangered rivers each year since 1986.

On the 2009 list, the Flint ranked second only to the Sacramento-San Joaquin river system in California.

Jenny Hoffner, Atlanta-based director of the water supply program for American Rivers, said the Flint ranked so high because it is “a national treasure” that is representative of the poor water supply decisions being made nationwide, and particularly in the Southeast.

“We’re seeing politicians reaching for 20th-century and 19th-century solutions when 21st-century solutions are at their fingertips,” Hoffner said. Examples include tiered water-use rates, retrofitting residential water fixtures and individual meters for apartments, she said.

Last year, Republican U.S. Reps. Nathan Deal and Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia sought $10 million in federal funding to study reauthorizing a series of dams that had been planned for the Flint in the 1970s before being nixed by then-Gov. Jimmy Carter.

“Congress must deny attempts to authorize new dams on the Flint, and metro Atlanta must make water efficiency the backbone of its water supply strategy,” the American Rivers report states.

It notes that about 245 million gallons of water are already withdrawn daily from the upper Flint River basin for drinking water and industrial uses, and its watershed is used to irrigate more than a million acres. Yet the Flint remains one of only 40 rivers in the United States to flow undammed for more than 200 miles.

The Flint Riverkeeper organization was formed last summer mostly to fight the proposed dams.

“I think this announcement should cause people throughout the river basin, and people in other basins, to think more about their rivers: How bad is the threat, and what can that do to eliminate it?” said Paul DeLoach, president of the Flint Riverkeeper board.

Although DeLoach expressed surprise that the Flint ranked so high on the American Rivers list, he said it reaffirms his assessment of the river’s importance and the risks it faces.

The Flint Riverkeeper organization had hoped to hire a river keeper to be its official advocate and leader by now, but the national economic meltdown has left the group struggling for donations, DeLoach said. The advocacy organization has about 600 members and has raised about $100,000, he said, but its board wants to double that funding before hiring a riverkeeper.

The recent end to the historic drought in north Georgia has provided some breathing room for fundraising, DeLoach said. “But I don’t think we really have any real breathing room when I look at the Atlanta demand for water,” he said.

DeLoach said the Flint Riverkeeper organization is starting to hold meetings in different towns throughout the watershed and will probably meet in Thomaston late this month or early May.

The American Rivers report suggests several ways to reduce threats to the Flint, including passage of a proposed bill to require scientific research to assess the water needs of the Flint, Apalachicola and Chattahoochee Rivers. Those three have been the subject of extended “water wars” among Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

The report also urges Georgia to use its $24 million in water efficiency funding from the federal stimulus package to develop lasting water supply solutions that focus on conservation rather than reservoir development.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.