The Oostanaula River - One river down! Today I finished the Conasauga, paddling to its confluence with the Coosawattee River and entered the Oostanaula. I have gotten to know the Conasauga from its rugged headwaters in the Cohutta Wilderness and the Cherokee National Forest to its cultivated river valley. I have seen its beauty, its secrets and even its degradation.
I have repeatedly mentioned that the Conasauga is one of the last great strongholds for fish diversity. That we still have that fish diversity is due in large part to the Clean Water Act.
Those who paddled the Conasauga prior to today’s modern environmental laws found dead fish and a river colored with dyes from the carpet mills. The Clean Water Act forced industries and municipalities to clean up the waste they piped to our rivers, and today the Conasauga is healthier.
But our rivers are still threatened. Any eight-mile paddle trip on the Conasauga will still present cows in the river, a drainage ditch or two and vegetation along the riverbanks destroyed.
Each one of these problems contributes only a small amount of pollution, but having paddled the entire stretch of the Conasauga, I can now see how problems multiply downstream.
Today, our rivers are threatened by multiple sources. A single cattle farmer on the banks of the Conasauga cannot be held completely responsible for the excess of nutrient runoff downstream. Nor can you look at a muddy Conasauga and say that the sediment came from a single construction site. However, add them all up, and the small pollution events are the equivalent of a death by a thousand cuts.
Though I have paddled the Conasauga from Tennessee to Calhoun, I have only just touched the watershed. That’s because the majority of the stream-miles in this river system are made up of small tributaries that feed the river.
In fact, some estimates show that, in any river system, as much as 70 percent of the stream mileage is made up of tiny, unnamed creeks. That’s where most of the pollution enters the Conasauga system.
With the bulk of the river’s issues coming from varied sources, the only way we can protect it is through a collaborative effort from all its citizens. Too often we like to complain about environmental degradation without asking, “What can I do?” The hope of the Conasauga lies in the effort of all its citizens, not a few individuals.
Homeowners can avoid over-fertilization of lawns and use fewer pesticides and herbicides. Cattle farmers can fence their livestock out of our rivers and streams. Cities can invest in their sewage systems to prevent spills. Builders and developers can insure that dirt from construction sites stays on the site, and individuals can put litter in the trash can or recycling bin instead of throwing it on the ground. If everyone considers the impacts of their actions, then the Conasauga can remain a fish haven for generations to come.