All important Coosa River faces obstacles

Trash sits by the bank of the Coosa River. A local group holds celanups, but human negligence is harming the river, an important source of hydroelectric powe, recreational opportunities and identity for the area.

Throughout Alabama history, the Coosa River has been the backdrop to quite a few legendary stories. From Desoto’s expeditions to major fishing tournaments to sightings of river monsters and giant fish, the Coosa has seen it all. Even Popeye the Sailorman called the Coosa home.

You read that correctly: Popeye was a Coosa cruiser, according to a history page on the Lake Mitchell Home Owners and Boat Owners website. Tom Sims, creator of the Popeye the Sailorman comic books, based the adventures on things he experienced as the son of a Coosa River ship captain.

While there are no spinach engulfing sailors or steamboats rolling today, the beauty and tranquility that is the Coosa still inspires people and draws them in flocks to its banks. With six lakes across 280 miles of river, the Coosa is ideal for those looking to fish, swim, boat or just get outdoors.

Down at the dock: Higgins Ferry Park on Lake Mitchell is a popular destination for residents and out of towners alike.

Yet all is not well with the river. While there’s no denying the Coosa is filled with natural beauty, there’s also no denying that it is becoming increasingly polluted.

Those close to the river are keeping an eye on the environmental concerns, while acknowledging that the recreational and educational benefits are spectacular.

Environmentally endangered?

A major area of concern is the amount of garbage that has found its way into the Coosa.

During one of their annual clean ups last year, the Lake Mitchell HOBO crews pulled out a 3,200 pounds of garbage, including hot water heaters and air conditioners.

“We host a clean-up day in partnership with Alabama Power’s Renew Our Rivers program,” said Ralph Mason, president of Lake Mitchell HOBO. “They bring in a couple of barges and we use our pontoon boats [to get the trash].”

In addition to the boats and barges, the HOBO Association also has a county provided dump truck, as well as a clean up crew from the Chilton County Sheriff’s Department. Mason said those who go out sometimes come back with bizarre forms of garbage.

“They’re out going into sloughs and getting into some gosh-awful places,” said Mason. “They pull out some crazy things. It used to be [they’d pull out] big refrigerators, old cars. When that dam was formed, and over the years, it kind of became a dumping ground.”

Dan Murchison, the Coosa River Association representative for Lake Mitchell, said the things he found during the clean ups were unbelievable.

“I personally found an air conditioner out of Cargile Creek,” he said. “If you could see what we’ve taken out of this lake over the years, it couldn’t help but improve water quality.”

In addition to trash being an issue, a recent report indicated that many species of animals found in the Coosa were becoming extinct.

In 2010, the American Rivers organization published a list of the 10 most endangered rivers in America. The Coosa was listed at No. 10, because the organization claimed the hydroelectric dams along the river caused harm to the ecosystem of the river.

When the rivers became impounded, it led to the change of environment for several of the snails and mussels that lived in the river, according to Outdoor Alabama, the website maintained by the State Department of Conservation. Another concern was the ability of fish to move upstream.

Outdoor Alabama also reported 18 different types of freshwater mussels were already extinct–and even more endangered.

“I attended four years of the relicensing [meetings], and these things are brought up,” said Murchison. “One of the things dams do is the oxygen levels get real low the further down in the water you go, and [when the turbines move] they pull the water and the oxygen off the bottom. The new turbines can put oxygen back into the water.”

Alabama Power spokeswoman Keisa Sharpe acknowledged dams have changed the river but didn’t exactly agree with the claims American Rivers made.

Water stopper: Mitchell Dam is important because of its production of hydroelectricity, but its impact on the Coosa River is debatable.

“While we would not suggest that the dams did not change the river, we do take issue with the characterization that the river is endangered,” Sharpe said. “Much of the original dislocation and, in some instances, extinction of species occurred as far back as the late 1800s when navigation dams were first constructed.”

Sharpe also said dams were not the only causes of change in the land and that Alabama Power is taking an active hand in trying to help the ecosystems of the river through partnerships like Renew Our Rivers.

“Also during this time, the basin was undergoing huge changes in land use unrelated to dams,” she said. “Protection of water quality did not begin until the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Despite these impacts, as we increase our knowledge of threatened species, we are learning that they survive in many areas.”

Alabama Power is in the middle of a decade-long dam relicensing process that occurs ever 50 years, and one of the main sticking points of the process is improving the quality of life for the animals who call the Coosa home. Sharpe said improvements have already been seen, as evidenced by the reemergence of the tulotoma snail, once listed as endangered.

“Our conservation programs, which will be vastly expanded after relicensing, have successfully expanded targeted populations,” she said. “In the case of the Tulotoma magnifica, an endangered snail, the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed downlisting the endangered status because so many are thriving below Jordan Dam.”

Despite the environmental concerns, the river still draws quite a crowd to its shores.

Recreational retreat

Some of the most obvious benefits of the Coosa come in the form of recreational activities. Check Lake Mitchell on any given weekend in the summer and you’re bound to see a small navy of boats, a surplus of swimmers and skiers and even more fishermen. But according to Higgins Ferry Park Ranger Frank Atkinson, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“Most of the people that come are elderly. They just come down to camp and watch things and relax,” he said. “A lot of people come down to fish and leave their boat.”

Atkinson said he thinks campers make up a majority of the people he sees.

“Tenters will come in and set up, and all for different reasons,” he said. “Some people come just to get away from the house.”

It’s not uncommon to see various forms of wildlife along the Coosa, including bald eagles, blue herons, deer and even foxes.

“Even people that don’t have homes here still come out and enjoy the lake,” said Scott Phillips, Environmental Chair for Lake Mitchell HOBO. “We’re also on the Wildlife Management area, and Forever Wild has quite a bit of land here, so there’s a lot of people that hike, canoe, get out and go trail walking. There are a lot of activities that aren’t just on the water.”

Economically beneficial

That said, there’s more to the Coosa than just fun in the sun. Several businesses in Chilton County benefit from having the Coosa River pass through.

“The lakes bring in quite a bit of tax revenue,” said Atkinson. “All people have to eat and all people have to get gas. [The revenue] helps the city and state, and it all comes from the Coosa.”

The Coosa also brings business to Chilton County in the form of power. Hydroelectric power, that is. Mitchell Lake is impounded by a hydroelectric power plant, which services the area around it.

Lay and Mitchell dams power more than 300,000 homes and generate an estimated 1,143,968 Megawatt Hours per year combined. They employ a total of 16 employees at each facility.

While the importance of the dams to the communities nearby is obvious, officials are also quick to point out that without the Coosa there is no power.

“The Coosa River has been a part of Alabama Power since its early beginnings,” Sharpe said. “Lay Dam was the first major generating facility built by APC.”

In addition to the dams providing energy, the Coosa also provides help to the water systems of the two counties.

The city of Clanton pulls some of its water supply out of Lake Mitchell, through a plant in Pumphouse Slough.

What does the future hold?

The Coosa still rolls on after all these years, people still enamored by its beauty. It’s arguable that the river is just as important today as it was back when the steamboat was king. Now, however, instead of being the main mode of transporting goods, it is a source of power for the surrounding areas, it provides a means of escaping the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and it is a dynamic force behind the economies of Chilton County.

But are the environmental concerns enough to worry about the future of the river?

Murchison said he believes the future of the Coosa depends on the attitudes of river goers today.

“We have got to educate our kids to not throw stuff in the water or to put it out in the road where it will wash into the river,” he said. “Most of the stuff we clean up comes from the creeks. If the people understood what we’re doing out here is cleaning up the trash that is thrown out in the creeks up there, they might take another look at it.”

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