All About the Chattahoochee River Basin


The Chattahoochee River is the 11th largest river in the U.S.

It begins as a small spring in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Helen, Georgia and flows south for 434 miles through Georgia and Alabama until it joins the Flint River at Lake Seminole to form the Apalachicola River which ultimately drains into the Apalachicola Bay in Florida.

Much of the Chattahoochee’s uppermost headwater portion is located within the Chattahoochee National Forest. After the river travels in a southwesterly arch through north and middle Georgia, it makes a dramatic turn to the south at the border of Georgia and Alabama. In the thirty mile stretch north of Phenix City, AL, the river drops approximately 375 feet as it crosses the Fall Line.

Human population increases in the upper portions of the Chattahoochee Basin have been significant as the Atlanta metropolitan area has increased from less than 3 million in 1990 to surpassing 5 million in 2018. Since 1990, increasing water demands for municipal and industrial water supply, power generation, agriculture, navigation, and recreation and the environment have strained the three states of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida in a suite of lawsuit collectively referred to as “The Tri-State Water Wars”.

Columbus, Georgia, USA downtown skyline and park. Source: Adobe Stock

Upon crossing the Fall Line, the Chattahoochee enters the Southern Coastal Plain province that is characterized by low, rolling clay hills and sandy bottoms with the river dropping a mere foot in elevation per mile.

The Walter F. George Dam, operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers – Mobile District, forms Lake Eufaula. The lake extends 85 miles up the river to Phenix City. The Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, a 11,184-acre property that is heavily managed for migratory waterfowl and wading birds, consists of one natural wetland and six artificial wetlands that are pumped from the Chattahoochee River.

Lake Eufaula during sunset. Photo Credit: Alan Cressler

WATER QUALITY

303(d) Listed waterbodies and AWW Volunteer Monitoring sites in the Chattahoochee Basin.

Mill Creek runs through Lee and Russell Counties and is a major tributary to the Chattahoochee River. Its headwaters are in Smiths Station and flows southeast into Phenix City where it meets its confluence with the Chattahoochee River at the AL-GA border.

NOTABLE TRIBUTARIES

On the Alabama portion of the Chattahoochee

Mill Creek

Mill Creek runs through Lee and Russell Counties and is a major tributary to the Chattahoochee River. Its headwaters are in Smiths Station and flows southeast into Phenix City where it meets its confluence with the Chattahoochee River at the AL-GA border.

Mill Creek was once listed on the ADEM 303(d) List of Impaired Waters for organic enrichment and low dissolved oxygen. This impairment led to the establishment of the Mill Creek Watershed Management Plan, which involved implementing stream restoration and best management practices in the watershed to improve water quality. Mill Creek is no longer listed as impaired thanks to efforts of community partners, volunteer water quality monitors, and the dedicated efforts of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System Water Team.

Volunteer water quality monitoring at stream restoration site on Mill Creek in Phenix City, AL. Photo credit: Sydney Smith

Uchee Creek

Uchee Creek is named after the Native American Yuchi tribe, and translates to “situated yonder.” Uchee Creek was near the site of a large settlement, “Euchee Town,” which was once visited by celebrated naturalist William Bartram.

The creek is critical habitat for the Shinyrayed pocketbook (Lampsilis subangulata), an endangered mussel species.

DAMS OF THE CHATTAHOOCHEE

The Chattahoochee is one of the most dammed rivers in the Southeast. Historically, the earliest federal work on the Chattahoochee was authorized in 1874 to provide a 4-foot channel for steamboat traffic up the river to Columbus, GA across the river from Phenix City, AL. In 1945-46, the River and Harbor Act introduced a plan to establish a 9-foot channel from the Gulf of Mexico to Phenix City and Columbus.

The US Army Corps of Engineers – Mobile District operates 5 dam projects along the Chattahoochee River – namely, Buford Dam (Lake Lanier), West Point Dam, Walter F. George Lock and Dam, George W. Andrews Lock and Dam, and Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam (Lake Seminole).

A portion of the Chattahoochee River shared between Alabama and Georgia has seen a huge whitewater recreation sport resurgence beginning in 2012, when the a river restoration project in downtown Columbus, GA and Phenix City, AL removed two historic dams (Eagle and Phenix Dam) to reveal the natural rocky riverbed below the previously inundated area.

Kayaker on Chattahoochee whitewater rapids in Columbus, GA and Phenix City, AL. Photo Credit: Alan Cressler

After several devastating floods to the river town of West Point (1886, 1919, and 1961); Congress authorized a dam to be built in 1962 because the town was continuously rebuilt, which resulted in West Point Lake.

West Point Dam from Hardley Creek Recreation Area. Photo Credit: Sydney Smith

WILDLIFE

The Chattahoochee Basin is home to several federally threatened and endangered freshwater mussel species such as the purple bankclimber, shiny-rayed pocketbook, Gulf moccasinshell, and the oval pigtoe.

Oval pigtoe tagged in a freshwater mussel restoration project in Georgia. Photo Credit: USFWS

Historically, the now federally-threatened Gulf sturgeon (an anadromous fish) swam from the Gulf of Mexico, up the Apalachicola River to the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers to spawn in freshwater. However, dams, particularly the construction of Jim Woodruff Dam in 1952, has blocked the upstream movement of the Gulf Sturgeon. In 2013, it was discovered that the purple bankclimber largely depends on the Gulf sturgeon as a larval host.

Wood Stork. Photo Credit: Alan Cressler

The wood stork, a large and prehistoric looking bird, is another Chattahoochee Basin resident. The wood stork is the largest wading bird that breeds in the United States. Although it is federally listed as threatened and state listed as endangered in Alabama, if you visit Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge in the summer or early fall, you have a good chance of a wood stork encounter! Wood storks are typically found in freshwater habitats such as marshes, swamps, lagoons, ponds, and flooded fields.

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