A 19th-century navigable definition does not work for 21st-century river economies

We never had bales of cotton boated down the Withlacoochee River, because there are too many shoals.

[19th-century navigable definition; 21st-century river economy]
19th-century navigable definition; 21st-century river economy

But we do get fishing both from the shore and in paddle and power boats up and down our rivers, and for other recreation, There are massive investments by nearby cities and counties and other organizations in cleaning up the rivers for those purposes.

The state of Georgia needs to revise its 19th-century definition of navigability and passage to match the 21st-century present.

The antique 19th-century definition

The Georgia 1863 definition says a navigable stream “is capable of transporting boats loaded with freight in the regular course of trade either for the whole or a part of the year.” See Georgia Navigability Report, 3rd Edition and O.C.G.A. 44-8-5 (2010)

Some people once tried boating down to the Suwannee to establish commerce. They sold the remains of the boat and returned to the former Lowndes County seat of Troupville, at the Little River Confluence with the Withlacoochee River. Atlanta Constitution, January 29, 1889, Pg 12., quoted in Ray City History Blog, 18 October 2010, More About Troupville, GA and the Withlacoochee River,

One thing more hindered her prosperity. At the only season when the main river was navigable, the Old Nick, himself, couldn’t navigate it. So it transpired that the only freighted barge that ever tempted its tempestuous tide was a flat boat that went down the river to the Suwanee, thence down that river to Cedar Keys.

[Which way?, 10:44:42,, River Bend Shoals 30.6672100, -83.3870100 in Cleanup and outing, Nankin, Mcintyre and Arnold Springs, Mozell Spells, Withlacoochee River 2017-10-14. I kind of doubt they got any farther than the Withlacoochee Confluence with the Suwannee River at Ellaville (although Ellaville itself doesn’t seem to show up until 1857). Cedar Key is a very far stretch of the imagination]
Which way?, 10:44:42,, River Bend Shoals 30.6672100, -83.3870100 in Cleanup and outing, Nankin, Mcintyre and Arnold Springs, Mozell Spells, Withlacoochee River 2017-10-14. I kind of doubt they got any farther than the Withlacoochee Confluence with the Suwannee River at Ellaville (although Ellaville itself doesn’t seem to show up until 1857). Cedar Key is a very far stretch of the imagination.

It never returned.

[Madison County, 1856, Surveyor Map from 1856. Map Credit: Courtesy of the private collection of Roy Winkelman. A town labeled “Columbus” is at the future site of Ellaville, and Madison has appeared. The Withlacoochee is labeled “Swithlacoochee R.” Or maybe they only made it to Belleville.]
Madison County, 1856, Surveyor Map from 1856. Map Credit: Courtesy of the private collection of Roy Winkelman. A town labeled “Columbus” is at the future site of Ellaville, and Madison has appeared. The Withlacoochee is labeled “Swithlacoochee R.” Or maybe they only made it to Belleville.

The boatmen sold the vessel and cargo and walked home.

[White water, 13:58:34,, Back to Georgia Shoal 30.6345700, -83.3417800 in Cleanup and outing, Nankin, Mcintyre and Arnold Springs, Mozell Spells, Withlacoochee River 2017-10-14.]
White water, 13:58:34,, Back to Georgia Shoal 30.6345700, -83.3417800 in Cleanup and outing, Nankin, Mcintyre and Arnold Springs, Mozell Spells, Withlacoochee River 2017-10-14.

Life was too short to navigate that crooked stream, with its sunken logs and treacherous sands, and the hope of water transportation was abandoned.

This may have something to do with why the people of Troupville picked up the whole town in 1860 and moved four miles to the east to form Valdosta where the railroad was coming. Rail was practical for regular freight trade; the rivers were not.

Sure, people did float logs down the river to market. But the Code of 1863 also says, “[t]he mere rafting of timber or the transporting of wood in small boats shall not make a stream navigable.”

Yet the Withlacoochee and Little Rivers are listed as navigable even in GA HB 1397, which was introduced in 2024, but failed to pass the Georgia House. That bill omitted many streams and stretches such as the Alapahoochee River and Sugar Creek up to Baytree Road, as WWALS advised the state representatives. Yet it did include streams such as the Tallulah River, which famously contains Tallulah Gorge, which is not usable in freight commerce at any time of the year. The non-solution of the bill’s sponsor and a subcommittee chair was to remove the Tallulah River from the bill. Well, removing the Little and Withlacoochee Rivers from the bill also would not fix the problem.

[Rep. James Burchett, Navigability in HB 1397 in GA House Natural Resources & Environment Quality Subcommittee 2024-02-26]
Rep. James Burchett, Navigability in HB 1397 in GA House Natural Resources & Environment Quality Subcommittee 2024-02-26

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. James Burchett (District 176, Waycross), worried that changing the definition of navigability would throw all caselaw out the door. “I fear that people want, if they can pull a kayak in three inches in water, they want to go there. That is not something I am willing to budge on.”

Fortunately, the Georgia Senate has passed SB 542, which fixes that problem by changing O.C.G.A. 44-8-5(c) to read (emphasis added):

“(c)(1) The General Assembly finds that the state procured ownership of all navigable stream beds within its jurisdiction upon statehood and continues to hold title to all such stream beds, except where title in a private party originates from a valid Crown or state grant before 1863. The General Assembly further finds that, by the common law, the citizens of this state have a right to use for passage and for hunting and fishing all navigable streams from low-water mark to low-water mark. The General Assembly further finds that the public retained the aforementioned right even where private title to beds of navigable streams originates from a valid grant, but, in such cases, the public’s right is limited to entering upon such stream beds held by valid grant only when incidental to passage and when actively hunting or fishing.

(2) Nothing contained in this subsection shall be construed to permit entry upon privately owned land adjacent to navigable streams.

Also, caselaw appears to be far out of date.

Suzanne Welander, author of the paddling guidebook, Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia, which has been in publication for 50 years now, testified in opposition to HB 1397. She decried the application of a 160-plus-year-old definition of navigability “to the modern recreational activity that we see on our rivers throughout the state of Georgia.”

[Suzanne Welander's incredibly light canoe, 14:05:50, 30.6008601, -83.0734123]
Suzanne Welander’s incredibly light canoe, 14:05:50, 30.6008601, -83.0734123

She noted outdoor recreation is a huge driver of rural economies, with over $1.1 billion into Georgia’s economy in 2022: specifically boating and fishing. We’re also a tourism destination for other states and countries that don’t have our nice climate where we don’t freeze over in the winter. 238,000 Georgians have jobs in the outdoor recreation industry as well.

She said over 1 million residents for Georgia enjoy recreational boating, wherever they can, even when they have to wait for rainfall. They legally access rivers from any public land, not necessarily where there is a DNR boat ramp. It could be and often is where there is a state highway crossing the river.

Fully half the streams in her guidebook by this bill are deemed not navigable. A total of 115 Georgia waterways with a legacy of boating access are not included.

The Georgia definition of navigability needs to be updated.

21st-century river economy

What we do have on the Little and Withlacoochee Rivers is many people fishing, both from the shore, and in boats on the river. Both last Saturday and Sunday many power boats put in from Troupville Boat Ramp and went down the Withlacoochee River fishing, as is usually the case every weekend when it’s not raining and the rivers are high enough.

Saturday also 42 people in kayaks paddled down the Withlacoochee River from Langdale Park, around and up to Troupville BR. This was the Fifth Annual Mayor and Chairman’s Paddle, organized by WWALS Watershed Coalition, Inc. (WWALS).

[Waiting for obstacle removal (Crowe Deadfall) --Gretchen Quarterman]
Waiting for obstacle removal (Crowe Deadfall) –Gretchen Quarterman

The Valdosta State University outfitter, VSU CORE, brought a bunch of paddlers.

[Valdosta Assistant City Manager Catherine Ammons and VSU students, 09:21:04, 30.8876913, -83.3237074]
Valdosta Assistant City Manager Catherine Ammons and VSU students, 09:21:04, 30.8876913, -83.3237074

The proprietor of another outfitter about to open in Valdosta, Happy Hippy Outfitters, also paddled. There are already two other outfitters nearby.

The Valdosta Boys & Girls Club supplied a shuttle van.

[Driver, Boys & Girls Club shuttle van, 10:11:49, 30.8876843, -83.3238426]
Driver, Boys & Girls Club shuttle van, 10:11:49, 30.8876843, -83.3238426

Georgia Power provided a $1,000 grant to keep tickets free. That grant also paid for port-a-potties.

[Speakers, r-l: Suwannee Riverkeeper John S. Quarterman, Outing Leader Phil Hubbard, Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson, Lowndes County Chairman Bill Slaughter, Joe Brownlee of Georgia Power, Sweep Phil Royce --Gretchen Quarterman]
Speakers, r-l: Suwannee Riverkeeper John S. Quarterman, Outing Leader Phil Hubbard, Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson, Lowndes County Chairman Bill Slaughter, Joe Brownlee of Georgia Power, Sweep Phil Royce –Gretchen Quarterman

Meanwhile, the City of Valdosta has spent upwards of $100 million fixing its sewer system, including building a new Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant uphill out of the flood plain, a force main with two pump stations, and numerous sewer line replacements.

[100-million-dollar waterfall: outfall of Valdosta Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant, 14:44:53, 30.8361563, -83.3590838]
100-million-dollar waterfall: outfall of Valdosta, 14:44:53, 30.8361563, -83.3590838

Valdosta will probably have to spend at least $30 million more, because they’re trying to catch up with a problem that started decades ago when the city was growing rapidly and the sewer system was not kept up. This all benefits the Withlacoochee River, because that’s where most Valdosta sewage spills end up. And it benefits the Alapahoochee and Alapaha Rivers, downstream of Valdosta’s other one, the Mud Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is also new. Plus Valdosta is replacing a repeatedly-failing sewer main next to Knights Creek, which flows into Mud Swamp Creek, the Alapahoochee River, and the Alapaha River on the way to the Suwannee River.

Lowndes County has its own separate sewer system, which has not had a major spill in years, because they tend to fix problems before they break.

Lift Station, Shiloh Road
Lowndes County Lift Station, 4565 Shiloh Road, Valdosta, GA

Valdosta has also paid for three trash traps on creeks leading to the Withlacoochee River.

[Saige]
Saige Williams at the Sugar Creek WaterGoat, which she helps clean out, being interviewed by Malia Thomas of WTXL TV, 2023-12-18

The city needs to buy more trash traps, but those three are a start. And they need to do better about enforcing their own city ordinances that require parking lot owners not to let trash escape, no matter where it came from. But at least they’ve started sending out notices, and citations when notices don’t work. For more, see https://wwals.net/issues/trash

[Banners with Russell --John S. Quarterman, 09:34:57, 30.8877168, -83.3238995]
Gary Koch from Ocala, FL; Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson; Shawn O’Connor; Phil Royce from Live Oak, FL; Bobby McKenzie; Russell Allen McBride; Chainsaw Cleanup, Withlacoochee River, Langdale Park to Sugar Creek –Phil Royce 2024-02-03 30.8877168, -83.3238995

WWALS has spent numerous Saturdays and Sundays (I’ve lost count) chainsawing deadfalls out of the Withlacoochee to accommodate paddlers.

[Movie: Phil Hubbard with the Husqvarna 460 Rancher 24-inch chainsaw paid for by Wild Green Future, 30.8452662, -83.3474455 (114M)]
Movie: Phil Hubbard with the Husqvarna 460 Rancher 24-inch chainsaw paid for by Wild Green Future, (114M) 30.8452662, -83.3474455

The Fifth Annual WWALS Mayor and Chairman’s Paddle last Saturday started as an idea from Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson to promote paddling especially on that stretch of river, which runs along the northwest edge of Valdosta. In 2019 it was the site of a massive fish kill from a million-gallon sewage spill. Fortunately, Valdosta has gotten better at managing its sewage since then.

[Sploosh, 11:26:59, 30.8735529, -83.3239076]
Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson sawing a deadfall on the Withlacoochee River, 2021-05-15, 11:26:59, 30.8735529, -83.3239076

After a couple of years, I said to the Mayor, “Mayor, you have to share.” I asked Lowndes County Commission Chairman Bill Slaughter if he would like the county to participate, and he said yes. During Paddle Georgia 2019, 300 paddlers went by the Little River Confluence.

[Movie: Welcome to Lowndes County!, 08:12:39, 30.847, -83.34754 (384M)]
Landowner Helen Tapp welcoming to Lowndes County 300 paddlers in Paddle Georgia, coming down the Little River to its Confluence with the Withlacoochee River, 2019-06-15, 08:12:39, (384M) 30.8470000, -83.3475400

At the Confluence in July 2019, Bill Slaughter talked about how much time he spent there growing up, including getting baptized in the Little River; here is WWALS video.

In December 2022, Lowndes County bought the 71 acres at the Confluence from landowner Helen Tapp. She said, “together with the 49 acres already owned by the Valdosta-Lowndes Parks and Recreation Authority, now there will be 120 contiguous acres in public stewardship, for recreation, reflection, exploration, interpretation, and celebration.” That would include the Troupville River Camp that she and WWALS and many others have been preparing for for five years now.

[Concept Plan by ASA Engineering]
Concept Plan by ASA Engineering

Valdosta had a small spill last week on Three Mile Branch, but it had washed away before Saturday, unlike the big ones that used to happen.

[Three small Valdosta Sewage Spills into Three Mile Branch 2024-02-27: 1500 gallons each @ 215 Knob Hill Road, 300 Knob Hill, & 1016 Williamsburg Drive 2024-02-27]
Three small Valdosta Sewage Spills into Three Mile Branch 2024-02-27: 1500 gallons each @ 215 Knob Hill Road, 300 Knob Hill, & 1016 Williamsburg Drive 2024-02-27

While there was trash, not nearly as much as before the trash traps.

We actually sawed four more deadfalls during the paddle, but the paddlers only had to portage once.

[Suwannee Riverkeeper sawing a deadfall --Bobby McKenzie, 30.8451896, -83.3466904]
Suwannee Riverkeeper sawing a deadfall –Bobby McKenzie, 30.8451896, -83.3466904

Thanks to Flint Riverkeeper for the jon boat and to Wild Green Future for the grant that bought a 9.9hp outboard, an 86hp trolling motor and batteries and charger, a Husqvarna 460 Rancher 24-inch chainsaw, and related materials. Thanks to Helen Tapp for the generous donation that supports the chainsaw cleanups and much of WWALS’ work about sewage and trash. Thanks to Georgia Power for four years of grants that support the WWALS volunteer water quality monitoring program; see https://wwals.net/issues/testing/

[Lowndes County Chairman Bill Slaughter on Langdale Park Boat Ramp, Donald Davis, Lowndes County Museum, 09:19:57, 30.8877179, -83.3237571]
Lowndes County Chairman Bill Slaughter on Langdale Park Boat Ramp, Donald Davis, Lowndes County Museum, 09:19:57, 30.8877179, -83.3237571

We put in Saturday at Langdale Park Boat Ramp, which is a DNR ramp, as is our take-out at Troupville Boat Ramp. According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GA-DNR), “Streams with state-owned boat ramps are open for public use.”

[South Georgia Rivers and Access Points]
South Georgia Rivers and Access Points

There are more DNR boat ramps upstream on the Little River, and three more downstream on the Withlacoochee River. So apparently everything downstream from those ramps, and maybe upstream, is navigable.

See the WWALS table of public access points on the Withlacoochee and Little Rivers.

[WLRWT-Sign.pdf]
WLRWT-Sign.pdf

Summary

Seems to me all this counts as investment in the local economy.

So nevermind the 1863 definition, by any reasonable definition the Withlacoochee and Little Rivers are navigable and there is passage and fishing, on economic grounds, and by simple observation of what people are actually doing on the river.

I’ve focussed on two of the Suwannee River Basin rivers in Georgia, but much the same applies to the Alpahoochee (which is downstream of Valdosta), the Alapaha (which has many shoals), and the Suwannee River, which is upstream of Big Shoals, the only Class III rapids in Florida. Yet all of these Georgia rivers are used for fishing, paddling, swimming, and power boats, most have DNR boat ramps, and neighboring counties and cities invest in promoting them for their local economies.

The GA legislature needs to move from the 19th century to the 21st.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

You can help with clean, swimmable, fishable, drinkable, water in the 10,000-square-mile Suwannee River Basin in Florida and Georgia by becoming a WWALS member today!
https://wwals.net/donations/