Flint River: A Natural Gem with Urban Beginnings

Map of the Apalachicola Basin (ACF Basin) watershed and main tributaries with the Flint River.

Georgia’s Flint River ought to be the belle of the ball – a sinuous beauty flowing gracefully from humble origins just south of Atlanta, through the hills of the Georgia Piedmont and into lush, rural farm country. Instead she’s a victim of society.

At its finest, the Flint offers all anyone could ask for in a Southeastern river.

One of just 40 rivers nationwide to flow more than 200 miles without a dam, the 344-mile tributary to the Apalachicola River at Lake Seminole along the Florida-Georgia line boasts a world-class fishery for native shoal bass, spectacular paddling, and a unique environment where the Southeastern Coastal Plain meets the tail end of the Appalachian Mountains.

The upper river cuts through ancient mountain ridges covered in forests of oak and Longleaf Pine, highlighted by the beguiling rocky slopes of Sprewell Bluff Park and terraced Class III rapids of nearby Yellow Jacket Shoals.

A modest recreation economy has survived largely off the backdrop that earned the upper Flint the ranking of Georgia’s “Most Scenic River” by the Georgia Natural Areas Council back in the 1970s. But after nearly running dry in recent years, the Flint River today may be better known for its ranking among the America’s Most Endangered Rivers® list in 2009 and in 2013.

The Backstory

There are many reasons for the drop in flows on the upper Flint, but the fundamental issue stems from the urbanization of the landscape at the river’s source and all the baggage that comes with it. Some of the river’s headwater streams actually flow out of pipes buried beneath Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Downstream, suburban sprawl has paved over wetlands and pulls an increasing amount of water from the river system for public water supply. Dams on tributary streams throughout the Flint’s headwaters further diminish flows and water diversions from the Flint to other river basins compound the issue.

Making matters worse, the region has experienced more frequent and intense drought. In an area historically accustomed to abundant rainfall, three severe droughts just since 2000 have caused formerly boatable portions of the Flint to flow below 50 cubic feet per second in summer months. Even outside of drought years, baseline flows on the upper Flint are dropping earlier and low-flow periods are lingering longer.

That’s putting stress endangered species, fish, and other wildlife as well as the outfitters who make their living guiding paddlers through the Flint’s scenic upper reaches, not to mention the rural communities that depend on the river for water supply.

The Future

The Flint has come under fire before and continues to dodge the bullets. Most famous among them was a proposed dam at the natural pinch at Sprewell Bluffs that was ultimately vetoed by then-governor Jimmy Carter after touring the site by canoe. Because dam sites never really go away, though, even defeated proposals have resurfaced in the 21st century as part of a misguided response to historic drought and continued growth in metro Atlanta.

Rather than resurrecting detrimental ideas, the current allocation issue demands institutional changes to learn and employ efficient water use, restore natural habitat, and prevent further loss of wetlands. American Rivers is standing with partners like the Flint Riverkeeper to oppose these proposals for destructive dams and work toward a sustainable river system.

By taking a collaborative approach that includes productive dialogue with water utilities and all other stakeholders, we can find the balance between what communities need and what the Flint River needs to survive the next drought and beyond.

  • Flint River | Alan Cressler
    Shoal lillies blossoming along the Flint River
    Alan Cressler