On June 24, more than 300 participants of Georgia River Network’s Paddle Georgia 2016 stroked into Rome, completing a 7-day, 103-mile canoe and kayak journey down the Conasauga and Oostanaula rivers.
Two days later the Rome News-Tribune ran a story headlined: “Rome’s rivers grow in popularity,” noting the increased use of the rivers by tubers, kayakers and paddleboarders.
To this, we can say, “My, how things have changed!” And, for the better.
In 1974 also in the Rome News-Tribune, Rome historian Roger Aycock lamented the loss of river recreation that was an integral part of many Romans’ lives during the middle part of the 20th century. From the 1920s through the 1950s, it was common for families and scouting groups to take boating and fishing excursions on the Oostanaula River.
Sadly, by the mid 1960s, pollution from upstream carpet mills had fouled the river such that Romans turned their backs to it. For the generation of Romans than came of age between 1960 and 1990, the rivers were viewed as a place largely unfit for swimming and fishing.
Wrote Aycock in a Jan. 6, 1974 issue of the paper: “Pollution from civic and industrial sources have largely destroyed the once idyllic pursuit of river fishing and camping…Still, the old potential for sport and pleasure remains. With the completion of sewage disposal projects…some portion of that pleasure in our outdoor life may be available again—if not to our generation, which has permitted its decline, then perhaps to our children, who may restore it.”
As it turns out, Aycock’s words were prophetic. Passage and enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act, local industries and municipalities taking wastewater treatment seriously and the advocacy efforts of organizations like the Coosa River Basin Initiative have, in fact, revived the Oostanaula.
Last week, as Paddle Georgia participants made their way to Rome, there was as much swimming as paddling. Mussels were found; fish were caught. When they drifted past Drowning Bear Creek, the Conasauga River tributary that was once thick with offal from the carpet industry, they found a crystal clear stream teaming with fish.
Yet, there is still work to do. Recently, we learned of the dangers of PFOAs and PFOS, toxins associated with the manufacture of stain-resistent carpet. While they are no longer in use, they persist in the Oostanaula River and earlier this year forced the city of Rome to begin relying more heavily on water from the Etowah.
And, while Paddle Georgia participants marveled at the mussels and fish they found in the river, biologists who study these creatures fear the river’s mussel populations are steadily declining, and they have recently found disturbing evidence of hormone disruption in fish that may be linked to agricultural practices along the river.
In 1540, when Hernando De Soto visited the Native American village of Chiaha (believed to be where Rome now sits) the visiting Spaniard was presented with a strand of freshwater pearls six feet long with each pearl the size of hazelnut. For our rivers’ mussels to have produced pearls of this size and in this abundance is a testament to the richness that De Soto must have encountered, and sadly, a reminder of all that we have lost.
Even into the late 1800s local residents were still finding pearls in mussels, and it may have been the search for these rare treasures that contributed to the decimation of mussel populations.
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single pearl treasure in the Oosantaula’s freshwater mussels—they simply are not abundant enough.
Still, the good news is that within a generation, the Oostanaula has been largely restored. It remains to be seen whether the river’s aquatic diversity and rich mussel populations can be saved and restored, but for sure, those paddlers that are now venturing on it are becoming the advocates that may ultimately bring about full restoration of the Oostanaula.