The Chattahoochee River spans from almost the northernmost board of Georgia in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains and travels south to the border of Florida. As the river flows towards the sea, each region is impacted by human activity with the ever changing watershed landscape. Like many waterways, the health of the Chattahoochee River has felt the impacts of development and land use. From sprawling cities, such as Atlanta, to robust military installations, the watershed carries the byproducts of everyday life. Development in urban areas is occurring at a rate that is out pacing the expansion of existing infrastructure and water treatment facilities. Existing facilities regularly become easily overwhelmed and spills have become a regular occurrence after heavy rains. Another rising issue is thermal pollution from paved surfaces. Run-off waters channeled over concrete, asphalt, and other paved surfaces are rapidly heated before flowing into tributaries, causing the overall temperature to rise to a point where it can impact and potentially kill the ecology and wildlife of the waterway.
The Chattahoochee River is the main source of drinking water for approximately 5 million people, or roughly 70% of the population of the metro Atlanta area. It also provides 100% of the municipal drinking water to the city of Columbus. On top of drinking water, the Chattahoochee River provides ample recreational opportunities throughout the region. Boating, camping, rafting and other recreation pursuits contribute an estimated $235 million dollars to the economy. Additionally, it's the home of the 2012 Ready to Raft program which created the longest urban whitewater rafting project in the world, generating 700 jobs for the community. The health and usability of the waterway has major economical impacts to the adjacent communities and their infrastructure.
In spring of 2022, Forsyth County Recycling & Solid Waste Department Community Outreach Specialist, Apryl Miller, started organizing a regional campaign on the Chattahoochee River similar to that completed in the Messages from the Mississippi program. In Summer 2022, Miller met with Public Lab staff members to collaborate on organizing student work, identifying logistical concerns, as well as identifying supplemental needs. Miller then presented the idea of having a one-day sampling blitz where students throughout the watershed would come together to collect the same data and samples at different reaches of the river. Throughout the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year, Miller collaborated with school districts spanning the length of the river system to identify potential classes to conduct the one day sampling program. Several student groups were identified to participate starting from the headwaters, north of Atlanta in Forsyth County, south of the Atlanta Metro area in Middle, as well as in Florida at the mouth of the river in Apalachicola. Participating students represented the headwaters in White County, by the Buford Dam in Forsyth County, the mid-way point in Muscogee County, and the mouth of the river in Franklin County in Florida. Much like the Messages from the Mississippi program in New Orleans, students would be sampling for microplastics using Babylegs Kits and tracking collected pollutants in the NOAA Marine Debris App. In addition, students across the watershed sampled for dissolved oxygen, pH, air and water temperatures.
All student data was consolidated to be shared throughout amongst the schools. At this time, students are still processing and organizing data. Information is being shared across the watershed for comparison and processing. Students will work to identify trends, patterns, and any unique findings and share throughout the semester. This program will continue to connect students across hundreds of miles that all feel the daily impacts of what happens in the Chattahoochee. Much like the Messages of the Mississippi program, this program is designed to connect communities and show the reality that behaviors and actions upstream can impact residents for hundreds of miles downstream. At Public Lab, we're excited to continue to follow the work of Apryl Miller and the students in the program.