The story of the Chattahoochee is the story of Atlanta. What is the river’s next chapter?

A journey into the waterway’s past offers glimpses of a bright future
Chattahoochee River
The Chattahoochee River

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Chattahoochee Map
Johnson Ferry: Named for the owner of the 19th-century ferry that connected Atlanta to north Georgia, Johnson Ferry is a popular spot along the river to begin a canoe journey.

Map by Khoa Tran

I don’t think we’ll get much closer to the great blue heron. But there’s an advantage a canoe has in stalking wildlife: We can drift.

Sixty feet. Fifty feet. The bird, standing in the shallows near the riverbank, doesn’t budge. I whisper to Obi, my seven-year-old son, to dip his paddle into the water. “Get the whole blade in and move it gently.”

Forty feet. Thirty feet.

It’s hard for a sternman to know what his bowman is thinking. That’s especially true when he’s just a first-grader. All I can see is a blue life jacket, a gray ball cap, and spindly arms holding an oversize paddle.

But I can observe the way his paddle touches the river. Strong, silent strokes. Strokes that tell me he’s gaining a sense for how his muscles can pull the blade, which moves the water, which pushes the boat forward.

Twenty feet. Close enough to make out a black bandit’s streak across the bird’s left eye, to see how white feathers in its face give way to an orange bill, a gray neck, and a blue body.

It turns its head to get a better look. Are we a threat or just a strange red log floating downriver? In a fluid launch, the slender bird spreads its wings and cocks its neck back into the tight “S” of a heron in flight.

“Pterodactyl!” my son declares with a delight that splashes right through me.

Chattahoochee River
Ken Edelstein and his son, Obi

Photograph by John E. McDonald

In the past hour, we’ve spotted more herons—a dozen, perhaps—than I’ve ever seen on the Chattahoochee. And not just herons. Obi and I put in at Johnson Ferry, where we were greeted by barn swallows that chased a red-tailed hawk. A mother mallard hustled her ducklings toward cover near the bank. Turtles basked on logs until they plopped into the water as we went by. And midstream an otter stuck up its head, ducked back in, and swam right under our boat.

I’m introducing Obi to my favorite place in Atlanta—the Palisades section of the Chattahoochee—and the visit fills me with hope for his future. Forty years ago my buddies and I would practice our own strokes on this same stretch of water. It was always beautiful, but the smell of poorly treated sewage was a constant companion. And we worried that sprawl would take this refuge away from us.

While we kids played, though, a small group of grownups was engaged in a battle to protect the entire stretch of the Chattahoochee that extends 48 miles from Buford Dam downstream to Peachtree Creek. In large part, they succeeded. Today’s river is much better shape than it was in the 1970s. That feeds my optimism, but it’s the next part that gets me excited. Another stretch of the river, the next 53 miles downstream from Peachtree, is now the object of a restoration effort that echoes the successful protection effort of the 1970s. If our own generation is as successful as the River Rats were 40 years ago, the green ribbon that cuts across the entire metro area will truly be a gift for all Atlantans.

Chattahoochee Map
Buford Dam: At its rebirth just below the powerhouse, the river feels like a mountain stream—one that’s filled with trout.

Cochran Shoals: Here, where the river courses through the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, herons have enjoyed a resurgence.

Map by Khoa Tran

A day after our encounter with the heron, Obi and I—along with Peanut, our big mutt—are putting in just below Buford Dam, 38 miles upstream from Johnson Ferry.

We paddle a hundred yards against the current to get a better look at the structure, which rises nearly 200 feet above us. A concrete powerhouse plugs the gap between two walls of blasted granite. The steep, grassy slope of the dam rises behind the powerhouse. “Imagine facing upstream if the dam weren’t here,” I tell Obi. “There’d probably be some pretty good rapids.”

That view disappeared for good 61 years ago, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the dam. Today Buford Dam backs up Lake Lanier, one of the most popular water playgrounds in North America. On a map, the 38,000-acre reservoir looks like a tree. Its trunk buries 35 miles of river. Its limbs are formed by the creeks that once fed the Chattahoochee. And hundreds of little branches hold countless beaches, resorts, parks, fishing holes, marinas, and subdivisions.

On this side of the dam, the Chattahoochee re-emerges surprisingly compact; relatively clear; and very, very cold—frigid enough to support one of the southernmost trout fisheries in the eastern United States. We turn and drift back downstream. The forceful channel from the powerhouse widens and flattens within a quarter mile. The river isn’t in a hurry here, and neither are we.

Peanut weighs the risk-reward of diving from the canoe to chase a couple of mallards. Obi spots another heron, still as a statue and knee-deep in the shoals. A fisherman, also knee-deep, dangles three trout from a stringer line that he pulls out of the water. “I catch many rainbow here,” he boasts in a Russian accent.

Chattahoochee River

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Chattahoochee River

Photograph by John E. McDonald

We scrape over a few rocks and take the right fork around an island. Anglers, heron, and boulders line the narrow waterway that courses between banks thick with trees and undergrowth. Cold air occasionally wafts from the surface, bracing our faces with a pleasant chill.

We’re well into the rolling hills of the Piedmont, but it feels as if we’re floating down a mountain stream. The entire river can’t be much more than 50 feet across.

The Chattahoochee feels a bit smaller than usual because, despite all the rain we’ve gotten recently, we’re still technically in a drought. In an effort to get Lanier’s surface back up to “full pool” (1,071 feet above sea level), the Corps is letting as little water through the dam as it’s allowed. The Corps must release at least 600 cubic feet per second to meet its obligations to downstream users and to the ecology of the river itself. But it’s a Hobson’s choice. The more the Corps releases now, the lower the lake levels later. And the lower the lake levels, the more desperate local governments will be to impose drought restrictions across the metro area.

The metro Chattahoochee may be the hardest working river of its size in the country. Along the 100 miles downstream from Buford Dam, it provides clean water for the homes, businesses, and landscapes of some 3 million people. It carries away their treated waste; provides the steam to crank turbines in three huge natural gas power plants; boosts property values; and sustains a countless population of fish, mammals, and waterfowl. That’s not even counting what the river provides as it wends its way south, its waters ultimately spilling into the oyster beds of Apalachicola Bay, Florida.

There are no town centers on the Chattahoochee’s banks as it flows southwest, through the north Fulton suburbs, along the western limits of the city, and on toward West Point Lake. That creates a paradox: For all its service to civilization as it slices through the heart of the metro area, this river for the most part retains the timeless, somewhat wild character of a refuge from urban life.

Three miles downstream from Buford Dam, we’re already far from the hullabaloo. A little Class II rapid is formed by a low hippo of a rock sitting in the current. With a surprisingly powerful cross-draw, Obi whips us hard to the right and into a chute that leads down a wave train.

It’s jarring to round a bend and spot the two concrete spans of Cumming Highway. The cars and trucks whiz above us in another universe. But just downstream we spot stacked stone abutments camouflaged by moss and dirt against each bank. Midstream we have to swerve around the foundation of a stone pier. Shards of aged wood poke the surface, the remnants of a 19th-century bridge.

Signs of human interaction with the Chattahoochee date back much further. More than 40 Native American archaeological sites have been identified along the metro ’Hooch, including fish weirs whose stones are still visible in the stream. Starting in the early 1800s, Europeans and African slaves built ferries, bridges, and mills along the river and its creeks. Metro road names testify to the importance settlers ascribed to the river when they understood they depended on it: Paces Ferry, Akers Mill, Holcomb Bridge, Howell Mill.

That dependence grew, even as the river became more remote from the everyday life of the growing metropolis. Atlanta was founded on a ridge that happened to be six miles from a bend on the Chattahoochee, where Peachtree Creek and the river meet. That’s where, in 1897, the city started pulling out drinking water.

Now, on any given day, metro area utilities and industries withdraw more than 300 million gallons from Lake Lanier and the river. They route the water through reservoirs, treatment plants, and thousands of miles of pipe to more than a million homes, shops, offices, schools, ballfields, golf courses, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and hair salons. A wastewater system of similar scale carries about 70 percent of that water to sewage treatment plants that discharge it back into the river and its tributaries.

Chattahoochee River
The Buford Dam powerhouse

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Of course, the greatest single human footprint on the metro ’Hooch is Buford Dam, which was completed in 1956. Its explicit purpose was to control floods, generate hydropower, and manage flows that would allow barge navigation far downstream from Atlanta. Lake Lanier’s capacity to manipulate flows for drinking water in a region that needed a dependable supply was something of an afterthought.

The effort to protect the river that began a couple of decades later really was an attempt at balance. A small group of fishermen and boaters noticed that decades of taking the river for granted had come at a cost. Inadequately treated sewage and industrial waste had rendered the stretch of the river below Peachtree Creek unsuitable for human contact. The section between the dam and Peachtree Creek was headed in a similar direction. And it was only a matter of time before the great land rush prompted by new interstate highways would start to spread a new type of human footprint—sprawl—into the northern suburbs.

The almost accidental discovery of plans for a pair of sewer lines along the Palisades section of the river spurred the River Rats into action. First they fought the sewer. Then they came up with a more audacious scheme: They proposed the creation of a national park from Buford Dam all the way down to Peachtree Creek.

By the time my friends and I began playing on the river in the mid-1970s, the Chattahoochee had gained two important protections. At the federal level, the Clean Water Act began to force water treatment plants, industrial polluters, and power plants to clean up their acts. At the state level, the Metropolitan River Protection Act limited development within 2,000 feet of the river. And in 1978, with a big push from President Jimmy Carter, Congress approved a trimmed down version of the national park. The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area incorporated the river, bank-to-bank, for the 48-mile stretch from the dam to Peachtree Creek, and the park service has been adding on bits and pieces of land for nearly 40 years. Although a far cry from the original aspiration, the recreation area now includes 18 separate “units” of parkland totaling more than 10,000 acres.

All these measures—the Clean Water Act, the river buffer, the recreation area—did more than protect wildlife; they also protected the water source that the entire region depended upon. It’s too simple to say that the battle was won. For one thing, it ended up being an imperfect resolution with many gaps in protection. For another, in a metro area powered by real estate development, threats will always continue.

But an armistice of sorts has been a happy ending for the upper stretch of the metro ’Hooch—as Obi and I can attest when a kingfisher clicks by us in the usual hurry. Peanut seems to agree with that assessment. She jumps out in her exuberance, only to quickly scramble back toward the boat. That water is cold—even if you have your fur on.

Chattahoochee Map
Plant McDonough-Atkinson: Past Peachtree Creek, the Chattahoochee becomes less scenic. But things are improving. Georgia Power has transitioned all of the units at the Cobb County power plant, below and right, from coal to natural gas.

Map by Khoa Tran

I have a different canoe partner on another stretch of river. Jason Ulseth’s title at the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is simply “riverkeeper.” While other members of the environmental nonprofit’s staff lobby, file lawsuits, and do lab work, he’s the guy who patrols the river day in and day out. And his main focus is downstream from Peachtree Creek, where we are today.

We carry the boat about 300 yards then drag it down a muddy bank. This is the forgotten stretch of the metro ’Hooch. It’s as long as the upper part, but there are very few access points, no parks, and a fair amount of industry.

Just upstream from us is the Atlanta water intake station. Across Peachtree Creek is the massive R.M. Clayton wastewater treatment plant and a new outfall for extreme stormwater overflows.

Combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, are the issue that the Riverkeeper cut its teeth on. In 1995 the nonprofit sued the city of Atlanta under the Clean Water Act for allowing its CSOs to grossly pollute this stretch of the river. And now, two decades and a couple of billion dollars later, this part of the river is finally worth paddling.

This far downstream, the Chattahoochee can no longer be mistaken for a pristine mountain waterway. More than 70 creeks have entered since Buford Dam, providing enough water to push through a wide, deep, regular channel. Many of those creeks carry silt from the northern suburbs’ construction projects, so the water is as brown as milky coffee.

Chattahoochee River
Plant McDonough-Atkinson

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Chattahoochee River
Plant McDonough-Atkinson

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Ulseth points across the river to an outfall for treated wastewater from Cobb County. A train chugs across a long trestle. Behind it, on the Cobb side, rises Georgia Power’s massive Plant McDonough-Atkinson. As we pass, huge evaporating towers are letting off steam.

He explains that the noisy, ramshackle contraption in the water near the Atlanta side is a sand dredge. It sucks sediment from the river bottom and spits it, up above the bank, onto a leaky, creaky conveyor belt.

Within a few hundred yards, however, things get quiet. On river right (the Cobb County side), we spot the occasional corrugated steel building or the kind of open land that’s often used by timber operations to dump logs. For a long ways down both banks, the grittiness continues. Eventually on the Atlanta side, you’ll come across the runway lights of Fulton County Airport, and on the Cobb side Six Flags rides that look like giant Erector sets.

Most of the way down, however, the river is lined with trees.

Just after we pass under a traffic jam on a highway bridge, Ulseth guides our boat into the mouth of Proctor Creek, a nexus between the past and the possibilities on this stretch of the Chattahoochee.

Water trickles over pretty stone ledges. Rubble that tumbles from a long-shuttered brick factory on the bank above and fast food containers that must have been carried down the creek sit in the low-water goo. They are obvious signs that the combined sewer cleanup hasn’t solved all of Proctor Creek’s problems.

Chattahoochee River

Photograph by John E. McDonald

But Ulseth gives me a sense that change is coming. Neighborhood advocates in West Atlanta have been working hard in recent years to clean up Proctor Creek. It’s a different kind of challenge from the work of the 1970s—urban rather than suburban. Unlike the upstream stretch, which needed to be protected from development, this part of the river and its tributaries need to be restored. But the impulse is the same: to connect us back to the water after years of neglect.

A similar movement is afoot on the river itself. A few years ago, activists formed a small nonprofit called Chattahoochee Now to focus on the 53 miles downstream from Peachtree Creek. The group hired Atlanta BeltLine visionary Ryan Gravel to put together a concept plan for the lower river. The plan, called Vision53, puts a particular emphasis on solving an obvious problem: access.

Chattahoochee Now’s ideas may look very different at first from those that the River Rats were pushing on the upstream section half a century ago. There’s no call for a national park. There’s more emphasis on visitor experience and on working together to find public-private solutions.

It turns out, however, that Vision53 is very much like the imperfect but happy ending that emerged many years ago upstream. Chattahoochee Now proposes “a 5,000-acre ‘working park’ that is comprised of a protected and interconnected new network of farms, forests, parks, and nature preserves.” More than anything, the new generation of activists is calling people back to the river.

I call Gravel to get his take on Vision53’s place in the long history of Chattahoochee River protection. “It starts with, ‘Wow. Look at what they did there,’” he says in a callout to the River Rats and their allies. “Buckhead and Sandy Springs and Roswell have got access to the river. But West Atlanta doesn’t. Knowing what we did there helps us understand that we can change that.”

When there finally are access points, I look forward to exploring the lower stretch of metro ’Hooch with Obi—as much as we can now idle down the upper section. But here, back at the Palisades, there are plenty of places to get on and off the river.

Soon after our encounter with that “pterodactyl,” Obi and I pass around 30 happy partiers who are plopping their rented inner tubes into the river at a ramp in the Powers Island Unit. We float alongside them under the bridge at I-285.

Chattahoochee River
Ken Edelstein and his son, Obi, paddle the Chattahoochee

Photograph by John E. McDonald

We’re about to reach the heart of the Palisades. For me, this is the heart of Atlanta. We’re nearly halfway down the river as it bisects the metro area. Downstream, we can begin to make out the tallest cliffs along the metro ’Hooch. The river charges past a ledge, through a narrows, and down some shoals before taking a hard right at the escarpment. The rapid, called Devil’s Race Course, isn’t much of one. But, when more rocks are exposed in low water, it can be tricky.

When friends from other cities ask what’s so special about Atlanta, this site flashes into my mind. The brown-gray stones obstructing the river. The trickle of water making its way around them. The bluffs rising before us. The laughter of tubers behind us. Even the constant drone of cars on the Perimeter.

Somebody blessed our city to afix it to the green hills of the Georgia Piedmont—close enough to reap the benefits of the Chattahoochee, far enough away to preserve its nature. Where an otter still manages its escape by swimming under your canoe. Where ducklings follow their mother as they weave between a maze of boaters. Where a heron will take flight right in front of you.

Obi and I are taking our time. We’re inspecting geese, ducks, heron, and tubers. But something’s wrong downstream. A canoe is showing too much hull. It’s tipped over.

“Let’s see if we can help them, buddy,” I tell Obi. We paddle with intention through the narrows.

The boy makes me proud. He paddles calmly as I throw a stern line to the swimmer, who manages to hold onto the boat and his paddle. The current is still pulling us to the next part of the little rapid. Now, we have to paddle hard to get to shore because we’re towing a swimmer and a canoe filled with water. I look behind me to check the swimmer.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine,” he answers.

I look ahead. Obi is digging his blade into the water. We reach the shore, and it’s time to celebrate. High fives with our paddles.

“Congratulations, Obi. That was your first river rescue.”

He’s beaming.

This article originally appeared in our August 2017 issue.