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Monday, March 19, 2018

The Flint River: a river ready to regenerate

As the second longest river in Georgia, the Flint River is critical to the state's ecological, environmental, economic, and water-supply foundations. Flowing unimpeded for nearly 220 miles, the Flint River is one of forty rivers in the nation that flows unimpeded for more than 200 miles.

Scenic Flint River
photo courtesy of  Sherpa Guides |GA
From its headwaters south of Atlanta, the Flint River flows nearly 350 miles through southwest Georgia where it joins the Chattahoochee River at the Georgia-Florida border to form the Apalachicola River, which flows on to the Gulf of Mexico. The entire basin is often referred to as the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin.

In the 1970's, the Georgia Natural Areas Council named the Upper Flint River Georgia’s “Most Scenic River.” Beyond recreational purposes, the Flint River is known for its vast biodiversity. In 2009 the Halloween Darter found only in the Flint, Chattahoochee, and Apalachicola Rivers was recognized as a newly discovered species. Four federally protected mussel species live in the upper Flint waters. The lower Flint River basin, along with the upper part of the Apalachicola basin, boast the highest species density of amphibians and reptiles on the continent, north of Mexico. (1)

A River in Crisis
Yet the Flint River is running dry. Twice named one of America's Most Endangered Rivers by American Rivers, the Flint River is a river in crisis.

Contaminated stormwater flows
through the drain directly into the river
According to American Rivers, a contributing factor to the Flint River's increasing low-flow challenges is the headwaters ultra-urban environment. A significant portion of the headwaters is covered with building structure | pavement or flows within drainage ditches. In addition, contaminated stormwater from impervious surfaces flows directly into the headwater streams, without municipal water treatment. The headwaters are harnessed and flow under Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), the busiest airport in the world.

In April 2013 American Rivers and the Flint Riverkeeper published the Running Dry: Challenges and Opportunities in Restoring Healthy Flows in Georgia’s Upper Flint River Basin report. Within the Green Stormwater Infrastructure to Restore Natural Hydrology section, the report recognizes that current stormwater infrastructure upgrades with "green infrastructure" are one of many potential contributors to restoring baseflow in the basin's upper reaches. As stated in the report:
 “Green infrastructure” for stormwater management can include both retrofits to stormwater infrastructure and new construction, and it seeks to restore or replicate natural hydrology as much as possible. Infrastructure elements specifically tailored to infiltrating water into soils in order to restore groundwater and baseflow could help remedy the upper Flint’s water quantity problems in addition to improving water quality. Green stormwater infrastructure can be as small-scale as a residential rain garden or as large-scale as systems of bio-swales or bio-retention ponds, and can even extend to broader “natural infrastructure” strategies such as targeted land conservation to preserve wetlands and stream corridors, or in some cases restoring natural floodplains, wetlands, and degraded streams.
There are many opportunities for improvements to stormwater management in the upper Flint’s most urbanized areas—at and near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport—and also in suburban areas of Clayton, Coweta, Fayette, Fulton, Henry, and Spalding counties.
Green infrastructure may include bio-swales, wetlands, retention ponds, and other bodies of still water, which are perfect bird nesting and feeding areas. With ATL a close neighbor, it is important to avoid still water in the stormwater improvement plans within a specified distance from the airport. Flying birds are hazardous to airplane take-offs and landings.

Finding the Flint
Finding the Flint is a vision for connecting Atlanta’s Flint River Headwaters and the Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance (AAA), a driving force for revitalizing the area surrounding the Atlanta Airport.

Park Pride Executive Director Michael
Halicki next to the urban headwaters
Funded by American Rivers and the Conservation Fund in partnership with the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), Finding the Flint brings together the impacted local government and civic organizations: Clayton County Water Authority, Upper Flint River Working Group, Flint Riverkeeper, ATL, Cities of College Park, East Point, and Hapeville, AAA, AAA Community Improvement Districts, Development Authority of Clayton County, and Fulton County Citizen's Commission on the Environment.

In fall 2017 the ARC awarded the Upper Flint Green Infrastructure Preliminary Design Services contract to Pond & Co. Additionally, writer and urban designer Hannah Palmer was named Finding the Flint Coordinator.

Flint River Headwaters Tour

On March 17 Atlanta-based non-profit Park Pride hosted the Finding the Flint tour as part of their 17th Annual Parks & Greenspace Conference, Parks & the Resilient City, pre-event activities. American Rivers - Georgia Director Clean Water Supply Ben Emanuel and Hannah led the tour and educated the diverse, enthusiastic group. 

The tour consisted of five opportunities to witness the current state of the Flint River headwaters at the following locations: 

Georgia Power substation with
Flint River headwaters in the culvert
Willingham Drive - the river headwaters flow in a culvert alongside a Georgia Power substation along Willingham Drive; there is a vision to create a pocket park along the headwaters stream. Across the street, there is available land for a potential larger park. 

2> Virginia Crossings - the river headwaters flow underneath the parking lot and are seen through the stormwater drain; there are approved plans for a hotel on the parking lot site. With construction slated to start soon, the March 17 tour may be the final tour to visit the stormwater drain pictured earlier.

South of the Virginia Crossings parking lot, the headwaters return to the light of day for a brief stretch before its journey under the ATL campus. There is a vision for connected trails and greenways as the stream flows through office and industrial complexes.

3> Airport Loop Road - the Delta Flight Museum is located on the banks of the Flint River headwaters as the stream emerges from underneath ATL. There is a vision for green amenities on the grass areas near the museum.

Cargo plane landing on runway #5
at the Forest Parkway bridge.
4> Forest Parkway Bridge - once south of ATL the river headwaters return to the light of day for the remainder of the river's flow to the Florida state line. At the Forest Parkway bridge, there is a vision to create a plane-watching site by the river.

5> Atlanta South Parkway -  the Flint River regains a natural shoreline as it flows south within continued urban impact. From the Atlanta South Parkway bridge, it was disheartening to witness how local residents use the river shore as a dumping site.

Elemental Impact (Ei) Founder Holly Elmore and Ei Advisor Boyd Leake of Community Environmental joined the Park Pride Finding the Flint tour. Ei is committed to Flint River headwaters projects from two aspects: 1> support of the ATL's Flint River initiatives via the Sustainable Facilities Initiative - ATL Pilot, and 2> development of a Lambda Alpha International (LAI) Atlanta Chapter project. LAI is a global land economics honorary; Holly serves on the Atlanta Chapter Board and spearheads the LAI Atlanta Flint River project under development.

The Ei FB album, Flint River Headwaters, includes a section with a pictorial recap of the empowering tour.

Finding the Flint brings together the community across local jurisdictions, businesses across industry boundaries, and citizens who call the Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance area their home. With the spectrum of committed support, the Flint River is staged to flow from a "river in crisis" to a "river in regeneration." 


1> referenced from American Rivers, Flint River: a Natural Gem with Urban Beginnings.

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