Above the Waterline: Climate change conference focuses on the Chattahoochee, solutions

White County residents Jeff Threlkeld and Ray Kahn say the Chattahoochee River is lower than four decades ago. (Photo by Hal Jacobs)

Wildfires in Greenland. ‘Sunny day’ floods in Miami. Icebergs the size of small countries breaking from continents. Vanishing lakes and record high temperatures around the world. The global list of catastrophic impacts from climate change goes on and on.

But, is there evidence of climate change here in north Georgia – in our own backyards? The answer is a resounding yes. If not quite as dramatic (yet) as the accelerating environmental changes elsewhere, the impacts are still notable and increasingly affect the way we live and work.

More than four million people rely on the Chattahoochee River basin for drinking water, including 70 percent of the residents of metro Atlanta. As Georgia’s most heavily-used waterway, the Chattahoochee is essential for industries, power generation, wastewater assimilation, crop irrigation, recreation and more. The first-ever conference focused on climate change effects in the Chattahoochee basin, which flows from the north Georgia mountains to Florida, will take place on September 27-28, 2017 at Georgia Tech’s Global Learning Center.

Titled “A Resilient Future for All”, the gathering seeks to present reliable scientific data and analysis of current and future climate conditions and trends; importantly, it will offer practical solutions to mitigate the change and adapt to inevitable alterations in our physical, human and ecological landscape. The goal: a resilient future for the millions of people and wildlife that depend on the Chattahoochee River.

In north Georgia’s White County, Jeff Threlkeld and Ray Kahn have seen dramatic changes in the upper reaches of the river over the past four decades. “When it rained forty years ago, the farmers didn’t go into their fields for three days [because of flooding on the riverside land]. Now, it can rain two inches at night and they can plow in the morning,” says Ray.

Photo caption: Atlanta beekeeper Linda Tillman worries that climate change is affecting her honey bees. (Photo by Hal Jacobs)

Both men note that the pattern of storms has changed significantly and, without steady, soaking rains, the groundwater reserves needed to sustain base flow in the river during droughts are being depleted. With few significant snow events in the Chattahoochee headwaters region in the past thirty years, groundwater recharge is further impacted, notes Jeff. Computer models created at Georgia Tech confirm that “water inflow” to the Chattahoochee River basin has been continually declining, reducing the amount of water flowing downstream to be shared among competing communities and interests.

On Lake Lanier, Owen Middour, a third-generation lake user, says that the recreational season has changed. The May to early September season of his childhood now runs from early April to mid-October, due to warmer air and water temperatures. He believes that increased recreational use is causing more shoreline erosion and other impacts to the reservoir which must be managed for many, often competing, uses.

Atlanta Master Beekeeper Linda Tillman says that spring is coming earlier every year, which confuses bees and their reproductive patterns. She adds that summers seem to be hotter and that the rain has been just plain “weird”. Channeling her southern heritage, she notes, “It’s been raining the bark off the trees.”

Too much rain from intense storms, increasingly common in the South, means less honey: bees can’t fly in the rain or collect nectar. Too little rain means the plants and trees don’t produce as much nectar, which also means less honey. Tending her hives in Morningside Community Garden, Linda worries about the impact of climate change on her honeybees.

In the middle Chattahoochee region, not far from West Point Lake, Eric Simpson says that farmers like himself don’t talk too much about climate change, but they sure talk about rain and drought and how to take care of limited water resources. He’s laying new drip irrigation lines to adapt to the change he sees.

Effects that scientists had predicted in the past would result from global climate change are now occurring – and more are on their way. We can listen to the climate deniers or learn from climate scientists and informed decision-makers with a goal of finding innovative, job-creating ways to embrace climate mitigation and adaptation.

Whether you are a student, a local official, a gardener, a member of the concerned public, or a climate expert, I strongly urge you to register today for the upcoming climate conference organized by Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and hosted by Georgia Tech’s Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business. Seating is limited. Details at chattahoochee.org/conference.

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper , a nonprofit environmental organization whose mission is to protect and restore the drinking water supply for nearly four million people.