Why is Alabama’s Coosa River endangered, and what can you do to save it?

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Coosa
Coosa River. (A. Odrezin)

Last April—for the third time in a little over two decades—national river conservation organization American Rivers placed the Coosa River on its most endangered rivers list. 

That is no small feat. Joining the Coosa this year on the list are some of America’s most majestic and recognizable rivers—including the Colorado River, Mississippi River, the Snake River in the Pacific Northwest and another Alabama river—the Mobile River.

In this first installment of a three-part series about the Coosa, we will learn why American Rivers has labeled the Coosa “endangered” three times.  

Facts About the Coosa River Basin

coosa

About 90% of the Coosa River basin is in Alabama, but the headwaters begin in the mountains of North Georgia near Rome, Georgia. From there, the river flows down Lookout Mountain, passes Gadsden, the Talladega National Forest and ends near Wetumpka, where it joins the Tallapoosa River and then the Alabama River. 

Some Alabama cities within the watershed’s large swath of creeks and streams include Fort Payne, Gadsden, Anniston, Rainbow City, Springville, Pell City, Sylacagua and many others.

One of Alabama’s most developed rivers, the Coosa contains a series of dams that create six large lakes:

  • Weiss
  • Neely Henry
  • Logan Martin
  • Lay
  • Mitchell
  • Jordan
  • Bouldin

The dams were built by Alabama Power between the 1910s to the 1960s, much like the neighboring Tennessee River Basin, which was impounded similarly by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Hydro-power brought much needed electricity to rural Alabama and was a cleaner alternative to coal.

At the time the dams were built, very little was known about the rare mussels and snails. It is important to remember this was all done  before the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. As a result, many ecologists and the Center for Biological Diversity believe the river suffered the greatest mass extinction of species in North American history (at last count, 36 species in total on the Coosa alone). 

Who is American Rivers and Why Does Their Endangered Rivers List Matter?

Coosa
Coosa Riverkeeper Executive Director Justinn Overton. (Coosa Riverkeeper)

Founded after the passage of the Clean Water Act 50 years ago, American Rivers believes that every community in the country deserves clean water and access to healthy rivers.

“The Endangered Rivers list we produce each year highlights 10 rivers that are at a crossroads,” said Ben Emanuel, American Rivers’ Director of Clean Water Supply, based in Atlanta. “They’re facing threats. The communities that depend on these rivers are facing decisions that will determine the health of the river and therefore the health of the community for years to come. This list is a call to action. It’s not a list of America’s most polluted rivers, or anything like that. It’s a list of rivers that all have tremendous natural benefits for their communities and for the nation as a whole in many cases.” 

The reason the Coosa River has appeared on the list multiple times over the years is because of the values and opportunities the river provides, explained Emanuel. 

“The river is part of an amazing river system that supports so much of the economic activity, the social fabric, and the community traditions of people throughout Alabama and neighboring states. The Coosa, as well as the Mobile River Basin are significant nationally and globally as a hotspot for freshwater biodiversity.”

Endangered 1999, 2010, 2022

coosa
Coosa River. (A. Odrezin)

American Rivers named the Coosa River Endangered in 1999, 2010 and 2022.

Each year has been different.

In 1999, the river made the list because of the threat of water scarcity. Dubbed the “water wars,”  at the time, Metro Atlanta was looking at ways to draw water from the Alabama- Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin to help meet the explosive population growth the area was experiencing. The report also raised concerns about agricultural pollution, an issue that is repeated in the 2022 Endangered Rivers version.


Twelve years ago in 2010, the Coosa made the Most Endangered Rivers list when the licenses for Alabama Power’s hydropower dams with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) were up for renewal. The report discussed the amount of water flow the dams allow. It called on FERC to increase water flow to ensure the survival of rare snails and mussels. Mimicking the natural flow of the river also means a healthier river.

Tulatoma
Once thought to be extinct, the Tulatoma snail has made a comeback in the Coosa and Alabama river systems near Wetumpka because of improvements of natural water flow. (Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center)

In this year’s 2022 report, American Rivers identified nutrient pollution and industrial scale farming as main threats to the Coosa.

“We’re on a collision course between climate change and industrial scale farming,” described Emanuel. “One of the impacts of climate change, especially in this region, is that when it rains, it rains harder. We’re seeing more intense rainfall events. And so we see more runoff from the landscape. That means the more animal waste that’s been applied to the landscape, the more is running off, polluting the rivers that we all need for fishing, swimming and drinking water.”

American Rivers is calling for common sense rules that will protect the Coosa and make it more resilient in response to a changing climate.

Coosa Riverkeeper—Defender

Coosa
Coosa Riverkeeper Executive Director Justinn Overton. (Coosa Riverkeeper)

As a result of American Rivers, designating the Coosa as a “Most Endangered River” in April 2010, a group of local residents established the Coosa Riverkeeper.

“Concerned citizens who loved the river, specifically the middle and lower part of the river, from Fort Payne to Wetumpka, which is approximately 5000 square miles of the state, decided we needed a clean water advocacy group, Coosa Riverkeeper’s Executive Director and Riverkeeper Justinn Overton told Bham Now. “We wanted to give the river a voice when it comes to the decisions that impact not just water quality, but also the critters and the 1000s of families who use the Coosa and its endless recreation opportunities.”

The best way to describe a “Riverkeeper?” How about defender or guardian? Overton ticked off a list of her roles and responsibilities:

  • Investigate pollution issues – patrol by air, foot, canoe or motor boat the river
  • Handle citizen complaints – address the hundreds of citizen complaints every year from folks calling about anything from litter to foul odors to sewer overflows 
  • Monitor permits to pollute –  ensure that our state agencies are holding the polluting entities accountable

Waterkeeper Alliance

Coosa
(A. Lyles)

The Coosa Riverkeeper is not alone.

“We are members of Waterkeeper Alliance, which is an international group of organizations working to defend their respective waterways,” added Overton. “In Alabama, there are 10 Waterkeepers that are working to protect watersheds.”

They are called Waterkeepers Alabama. Here are their members:

“Together, we address statewide issues that are impacting all of our river systems,” said Overton.

Next Up—Right to Know

Coosa
Testing the waters. (Coosa Riverkeeper)

In the next two installments, we are going to learn about the Coosa Riverkeeper’s Fish and Swim Guides—two ways you can help protect and save this special river. 

“One thing that is really unique to Coosa Riverkeeper is our focus on right-to-know issues,” said Overton. “In Alabama or the “river state,” our state motto is We Dare to Defend Our Rights. A lot of people, especially those of us who love our waterways, really don’t realize how limited we are about information on what’s entering our river system—not only for how it impacts recreation, swimming and fishing, but also how it impacts public health.”

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Pat Byington
Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

Articles: 2008