Help upgrade our Suwannee River Basins in Georgia

Update 2021-02-09: Redesignating waterways as Recreational –GA-EPD Triennial Review Meeting 2021-02-02.

See also Cost of reclassifying Georgia rivers from Fishing to Recreational in Triennial Review of Water Quality Standards.

We asked the state of Georgia to upgrade our main Suwannee River Basin rivers (and some lakes and swamps) from their current lowest water quality classification as Fishing to what they really are: Recreational Use. You can help!

[Georgia landings in Suwannee River Basin]

Every three years, federal law requires each state to review its water quality standards. 2019 is such a year for Georgia, so the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GA-EPD) is conducting a Triennial Review. The request WWALS sent to GA-EPD, background, and their response are all on the WWALS website. Our request was rather long, with 23 pages asking for reclassification of the Suwannee River, the Okefenokee Swamp, the Alapaha River, Lake Irma, Banks Lake, Grand Bay, the Withlacoochee River, the Little River, and Reed Bingham State Park Lake, all from Fishing to Recreational Use. The WWALS cover letter is included at the end of this blog post. For the rest, see the WWALS website.

The response thus far from GA-EPD has some good news:

Reed Bingham Lake* — Recreation (*This is already recreation in the rules, so let’s check this off as completed. I know that we phrase things in a confusing way, so if I can help with interpretaon please reach out.)

So we already have one reclassified before we even asked!

For the others, Victoria Adams of GA-EPD wrote:

Currently, I am building stakeholder email groups by subject/comment; if there are stakeholders that you know of that would like to be included in the discussions on these water bodies, please let me know. For this list I already have your groups as well as Georgia River Network and Georgia Beer Company. Next, I will be looking at our current water quality data, as well as existing permitted facilities for each of these water bodies. After that, I will contact the email group to set up a meeting to discuss.

Yes, Georgia River Network and all the other eight Riverkeepers of Georgia are also asking for such river upgrades.

It’s probably obvious that better water quality standards for our rivers in Georgia will also help people downstream in Florida. She also did not indicate any geographical restrictions on stakeholders. If you live in Florida or elsewhere but paddle or otherwise use Suwannee River Basin rivers or lakes or swamps in Georgia for recreation, you can help along with people who live in Georgia.

You can help

If you’d like to help, please fill out this form.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

You can join this fun and work by becoming a WWALS member today!

WWALS Cover Letter to GA-EPD 2019-03-08

March 8, 2019

      Elizabeth Booth, Environmental Protection Division
      Watershed Protection Branch,
      Watershed Planning & Monitoring Program,
      Suite 1152 East, 2 Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr., Atlanta, GA 30334

Cc: Victoria Adams <>, 404-463-4955

Re: Water Quality Standards 2019 Triennial Review

Dear EPD,

I write to request three changes in the 2019 Triennial Review:

  1. All rivers and many lakes and swamps in the Suwannee River Basin should be designated Recreational, not Fishing.
  2. Boating, especially in paddle craft such as canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards, should be considered primary recreation, not secondary.
  3. Water quality standards should be the same year-round, not lower in winter.

Point 1: Recreational designation for the Suwannee River Basin.

  • WWALS schedules at least one paddle outing each month; often two or three.
  • Numerous individuals, families, and clubs fish and paddle on our rivers and other waterbodies in every month of the year, plus cave diving in our springs.
  • People come from as far as south Florida and Canada to paddle on our rivers.
    • Canadians shivering on the Suwannee River in Echols County on a cold March 2017 winter day came back again. 
    • Three kayakers from south Florida paddled our Withlacoochee River from our most upstream water trail landing downstream into Florida.
    • A kayaker from the Atlantic coast of Florida won our Sixth Annual BIG Little River Paddle Race in 2018, finishing on Reed Bingham State Park Lake.
    • Paddle Georgia will bring about 300 paddlers from Georgia, Florida, and beyond to our Withlacoochee River in June 2019.
  • There are water trails on all the main rivers of the Suwannee River Basin in Georgia: the Suwannee, Alapaha, Withlacoochee, and Little, including several lakes, as well as in the Okefenokee Swamp.
  • These water trails are encouraging more people to paddle on our rivers, lakes, and swamps, improving the cleanliness of our waters and the safety of boating. See for example the unsolicited testimonial from Lanier County Emergency Management, “Alapaha River Beauty should Not be Hidden.”
  • The Suwannee, Alapaha, and Withlacoochee Rivers have mercury TMDLs that limit fish consumption, so Fishing seems an inappropriate classification.

Point 2: Boating should be considered primary contact recreation.

Your slide 5, DESIGNATED USES, for the February 2019 Public Hearing, lists:

  • Drinking Water
  • Recreation – Primary Contact
  • Fishing – Propagation of Fish, Shellfish, Game and Other Aquatic Life and Secondary Recreation
    • Primary Trout
    • Secondary Trout
    • Warmwater
  • Coastal Fishing
  • Wild River
  • Scenic River

From our south Georgia perspective, this seems a very strange ordering. All our streams are warm water, which is why people fish in them year-round for catfish, bass, and bream.

People also boat on our waters year-round, largely because they are warm water.

In our Suwannee River Basin rivers, and in many others in the state of Georgia, boating, especially paddle boating, involves direct contact with the water.

  1. Water drips from the paddle.
  2. Getting in or out of the boat often involves wading.
  3. Every WWALS outing is also a cleanup, involving retrieving trash into the boat, along with some water.
  4. In warm weather, boaters often swim during a paddle.
  5. Because of overhanging branches, deadfalls, shoals, and other reasons, falling in is so common in every season of the year that WWALS even has a Fallers Award. Pictured are two such award winners, from our 2018 BIG Little River Paddle Race.

Thus warm water should be considered a reason for listing streams, lakes, and swamps as “Recreation – Primary Contact” and all our streams and waterbodies in the Suwannee River Basin should be so listed.

Point 3: year-round water quality standards

Thank you for this listing in your presentation slides from the February 2019 Public Hearing:

  • Big Creek/Laura S. Walker Lake should be in the Satilla Basin

Indeed, the southeast side of the Okefenokee Swamp is in the Satilla and St Marys River Basins, while the rest is in the Suwannee River Basin. This distinction is common knowledge among those of us who live in south Georgia.

As Suwannee Riverkeeper, I report that people boat in the Okefenokee Swamp and the Suwannee River every month of the year, as well as on the Alapaha, Little, and Withlacoochee Rivers, and on Banks Lake and Reed Bingham State Park Lake. They also fish, swim, and dive in November through April, when the current Georgia Bacterial Standards are lower.

For seven years, we have held our BIG Little River Paddle Race in April, and last year we held a new WWALS Boomerang Paddle Race in November on the Withlacoochee River.

Boating, swimming, fishing, and diving are economic advantages

In addition to the environmental benefits of clean waters. The WWALS water trails have letters of support from tourism authorities, chambers of commerce, city councils, and county commissions, attesting to the economic advantages of water trails. Several county Comprehensive Plans, including those for Lowndes and Brooks Counties, also attest to the economic value of our waters and water trails.

There are not many cleaner economic benefits, and few requiring less public investment. The entire Suwannee River Basin is above the porous coastal plain limestone that contains the Floridan Aquifer, which is the source of all our drinking water, irrigation for agriculture, water for industry. River water interchanges with groundwater, so river water quality is essential for everything here, from boating to brewing beer. Please reclassify our rivers as Recreational, and update the Georgia Bacterial Standards to be the same year-round.

John S. Quarterman,
 Suwannee Riverkeeper,
 WWALS Watershed Coalition
 850-290-2350, 229-242-0102

Attachments: Map of Landings on all Suwannee River Basin Rivers in Georgia

Criteria for Changing Recreational Use for:
Suwannee River, Okefenokee Swamp
Alapaha River, Lake Irma, Banks Lake, Grand Bay
Withlacoochee River
Little River, Reed Bingham State Park Lake

For the rest of what we sent and other information, see the WWALS website. And you can help.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

You can join this fun and work by becoming a WWALS member today!