Article 10:

(Case Study) The Etowah River Practicum: Linking Conservation in the Classroom with the Community

By Laurie Fowler, University of Georgia

The Upper Etowah River flows from the north Georgia mountains through the northeastern corner of metropolitan Atlanta into Lake Allatoona. This section of the river is famous for its aquatic biodiversity. Ninety-one species of native fishes have been recorded, with four species endemic to the Etowah. Fifteen of the fish species and most of the mussels are believed to be extirpated and 17 species are federally and state listed for protection or are candidates for listing. Allatoona Dam produces electricity and drinking water to metropolitan Atlanta and in 2001 generated direct recreational revenues in excess of U.S.$86 million. From Allatoona the Etowah flows to Rome where it joins the Coosa River and eventually empties into Mobile Bay on the Alabama coast. The Etowah River thus contributes environmental and economic services to two states.

Atlanta is one of the nation’s fastest growing cities and its sphere of development influence reaches well into the Etowah counties. This rapid and largely unplanned growth is a major concern among many residents and local officials in the Etowah watershed. In 1996 the American Rivers Council named the Etowah one of the nation’s most endangered rivers. In late 1996, several citizen organizations and government staff contacted the newly established Public Service and Outreach Office at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Ecology (now the River Basin Center), to ask for help in developing policies to manage growth in the region. A response team, called the Etowah Practicum, was quickly formed. It consisted of graduate students and faculty representing the disciplines of ecology, law, hydrology, anthropology, environmental design, and resource economics. The Institute of Ecology procured a small grant from the Turner Foundation to hire a research assistant to help gather background environmental and socioeconomic information about the watershed, identify key stakeholders, and develop an ongoing graduate-level course.

The students and faculty in the Etowah Practicum held many meetings with stakeholder groups in the watershed to understand their concerns and to create priorities for the University’s work. From the beginning, a major goal was to establish dialogue among a broad representation of stakeholders including the private sector (such as riverfront landowners, bankers, farmers, and developers), government officials and staff (local, state, and federal levels), and citizen groups (land trusts and environmental advocacy organizations).

Practicum students working in interdisciplinary groups began projects to help the stakeholders gain a better understanding of the environmental stresses in the watershed and to provide them with the tools for environmental stewardship. Responding to a concern expressed by a county planning director that existing zoning laws did not allow clustering housing on a property to protect green space in sensitive riparian areas, one early group of students drafted the state’s first conservation subdivision ordinance. The ordinance was immediately adopted by Cherokee County. Five years later, another team of students reviewed the subdivisions that had been built pursuant to the ordinance to determine whether they were providing the ecological services that the county intended and to recommend amendments based on their findings. In response to a concern of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that a proposed withdrawal from a tributary of the Etowah might jeopardize imperilled species, a group of students explored this possibility using a computer program (STELLA) to model potential impacts of water withdrawals on the population dynamics of this species. The students identified a withdrawal regime mimicking natural flows that was predicted to be safe for the endangered species, which was ultimately imposed as a condition of the withdrawal permit. A number of students have ultimately chosen to expand on these projects for their masters’ thesis and doctoral dissertations. Reports describing the projects that have been completed to date can be found at www.rivercenter.uga.edu/education/etowah/main.htm.

Initially stakeholders gathered together at the end of each semester when the students presented their findings. The audience grew over time from 14 to 32 to 79. The students recognized that the side conversations occurring at these meetings—between county commissioners from adjoining counties, for example, or between developers and planners—were just as valuable as the information the students were providing. They proposed to the stakeholders that they develop a regional watershed organization, described a number of different functions and structures a regional watershed organization might adopt, and enlisted the help of some key players in the region, such as the Limestone Valley Resource Conservation and Development Council.

In early 1999, the Upper Etowah River Alliance was formed in order to maintain a permanent forum for dialogue among the stakeholders. The management structure includes a steering committee appointed by the governing bodies of the counties in the watershed and technical advisors. Appointees have included local officials, farmers, foresters, developers, conservationists, recreational outfitters, and representatives of businesses and utilities. As part of a research assistantship, one ecology student served as the Upper Etowah River Alliance’s initial project coordinator and her duties included organizing a series of facilitated public meetings to discuss issues and help develop the agenda of the Alliance. Out of these interactions, several major environmental concerns emerged. Water quality, wildlife conservation, development impacts, and sedimentation of streams and rivers were identified as the most important concerns. She also wrote a stakeholders’ guide to the Etowah that provides baseline information about the current state of the river and its watershed, presents prioritization of stakeholders’ concerns and suggested solutions; and supplies information on technical and financial assistance available for implementation of sustainable land and water use practices. This document was printed and widely distributed by the local governments within the watershed as well as the Alliance.

In the few years of its existence, the Alliance has built a number of non-point source pollution control demonstration projects throughout the watershed including a rain garden, xeriscaping, and streambank restoration. It has developed a strong Adopt-A-Stream program and presented dozens of workshops on best management practices for citizens and environmental professionals as well as programs for school children. Information about these projects can be found at www.etowahriver.org/. The Upper Etowah River Alliance has spawned another organization that is looking regionally at the issue of water supply (Upper Etowah Basin Group).

In 2000, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approached the Institute of Ecology to determine if there was interest in developing a regional habitat conservation plan (HCP) pursuant to the federal Endangered Species Act to protect the imperilled aquatic species of the Etowah. Students from the Etowah Practicum researched the issue of habitat conservation plans—what are the pros and cons, what are the lessons learned from the experience of earlier HCPs? University faculty took this information to the Upper Etowah River Alliance and to the elected officials in the watershed. Eight of the counties and 21 municipalities are currently developing what might be the most comprehensive HCP in the country to include management of stormwater, road crossings that do not impede fish passage, water supply, and protection of green space. Practicum students continue to play a critical role in the development of the HCP—researching management strategies, funding sources, and enforceability of the HCP; drafting the incidental take permit and portions of the HCP itself, and ultimately the Environmental Assessment. Ecology Ph.D and masters degree students are likewise engaged in the scientific studies relating the impacts of development on imperilled fish species that underpin the management decisions.

Inspired by the success of the Etowah Practicum, resource agencies and nongovernmental organizations have asked the Institute of Ecology to “adopt” other watersheds. In spring 2004, 20 students enrolled in the Satilla Practicum. Threats to this blackwater coastal river are vastly different than those to the Etowah, providing an outstanding learning experience for both students and faculty. Funding for this practicum was provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Georgia Wildlife Federation. In 2006, Practicums will address at least two additional rivers in the state.

The Etowah River Practicum provides one example of how partnerships between the community and the University can lead to science-informed policy that is supported by the private sector, citizen groups, and governmental officials. Trust and contacts created over the course of a semester can have far-reaching consequences. The ongoing partnerships and dialogue created by the Practicum helps ensure that management is flexible and adaptive to environmental and economic changes. Just as important for an academic institution, students who have participated in a Practicum leave the University with hands-on experience working with other disciplines to address pressing and complex environmental challenges.