Protecting Georgia’s Flint River: How Jimmy Carter stopped construction of a Corps of Engineers Dam on the Flint

flint river
Jimmy Carter saved the Flint River from being inundated by a dam at Sprewell Bluff

By JIMMY CARTER

As a boy growing up in Archery, I worked fields that drained into Choctahatchee (or as we called it, Chock-li-hatchet) Creek. Choctahatchee Creek joins Kinchafoonee Creek, which merges with Muckalee Creek and flows into the Flint River just above Albany. The Choctahatchee was where I fished. It was where I learned about the out-of-doors, where I learned to explore, and where I learned how not to get lost. It’s where my playmates and I, and occasionally my father, had many hours and days together. We had an immersion in the natural world that has marked my whole existence. The Choctahatchee drainage is really the origin of my life. I still feel more at home and more in a natural element and closer to God when I’m out in the woods by myself, or just with Rosalyn, than at any other time.

During those childhood years on the Choctahatchee, I developed an appreciation for the protection of at least part of the world the way God made it. It affected my life when, as a state senator, I had to deal with natural resources. It was a part of my attitude when I became governor. I was one of the founders of the Georgia Conservancy; I advocated the protection of the Chattahoochee River, particularly in the Atlanta area, and, as governor, I created the Georgia Heritage Trust, which had a budget of $11 million the first year.

While I was governor, I had two major altercations involving the environment and natural resources. One was the designation of wetlands to be drained. This was a standard program that had never been challenged before I went into office. There were 535 projects for draining wetlands in the process of being approved when I took office as governor. During the four years I was in office, none of those projects was approved.

The other altercation concerned the Flint River. There was a period of time during the economic evolution of our state’s and our nation’s history, when it was inevitable that many of our dams would be built and naturally free-flowing streams would be obstructed. The primary reason for these dams was power production, and in some areas, flood control. Later, to some degree, recreation became a justification.

At that time there was a system in Washington that aligned U. S Congressmen and the U. S. Corps of Engineers in a process that led inexorably to the construction of more and more dams. It worked for all congressmen but particularly for southern congressmen, most of whom were democrats and almost none of whom were challenged once they became an incumbent. One of a congressman’s highest goals in life was to have built in his district a notable dam at federal government expense that would create a lake that could be named for him.

There was a standard procedure. The process began when a newly-elected legislator went in as a junior member of congress. He would put his name on the list to get a dam built in his district. That dam might be at the bottom of 500 dams to be constructed in America. But as the congressman got re-elected time after time, eventually his particular project would move up to the top of the list.

As a result of this system, the Corps of Engineers, part of the United States Army, was subverted in its basic integrity. The motivation for the Corps was not to make an objective analysis of costs of a project versus its benefits, but to make sure that it pleased the members of Congress by guaranteeing that the computed benefits of each dam was always far in excess of the costs. At least on paper. The Corps of Engineers abandoned its basic integrity, uniformly over the whole country, in order to justify those projects; to please the congressmen who supervised the operations of the Corps and who also appropriated funds for its operation; and to justify its own existence. So there were hundreds and hundreds of dams being built around the country over a 10-year period. Almost all of them were unnecessary, yet, at the same time, they were quite attractive to the local communities involved as presented in the economic benefits analysis prepared by the Corps.

The Flint River dam at Sprewell Bluff fell into this Washington pork barrel pattern. In the case of the Flint, the major factor considered by the Corps in assessing the value of the proposed dam at Sprewell Bluff was recreation potential. The Flint is the longest-remaining free-flowing major river in Georgia. It is free flowing until it gets down to Lake Blackshear in Crisp County some 200 miles from its headwaters. Congressman Jack Flint, a good man so far as I know, wanted to dam up the Flint River near Thomaston, which was in his district.

When I became governor, I became aware of this. As an environmentalist, I was interested in the identification and preservation of natural areas. I was becoming more and more involved with people who enjoyed the streams and the out-of-doors in its natural state. I became an avid canoeist. I learned how to kayak. I learned how to roll a kayak in the Georgia State University swimming pool. I began to go down the Chattooga River, which was the setting for the movie Deliverance.

At the time, the Flint River was basically ignored. But when the idea of the dam came along, I was urged by a few outdoorsmen, fishermen and environmentalists to take a critical look at the project to see if it was justified. I personally canoed down the river twice. I went fishing on the river for shoal bass, a species indigenous to the Flint. I began to see what would change about the upper Flint if the dam at Sprewell Bluff was built.

I started a commitment—which was quite time-consuming but not unpleasant—of meeting with groups who were interested in the Flint River. I met with 50 different groups in the governor’s office. I met with concrete manufacturers and salesmen. I met with people who anticipated building a big recreation center in the neighborhood of Griffin and Thomaston. I met with chamber of commerce people who pointed out that during the dam construction period, which might last two or three years, there were going to be as many as 200 jobs created. These were people I had worked with in the past. I understood their point of view. I had been a businessman in a rural community myself. On the other side there were environmental groups and sportsmen groups who raised contrasting issues. It used to be that canoeists and fishermen, who wanted to wade down a river to catch some fish with a fly rod, were a small group and quite often not vocal. Those times have changed, and I think they have changed for the better.

Jack Flint was furious that any investigation or question was raised. But I was impervious to that displeasure. My next step was to ascertain the accuracy of the facts and figures of the Corps of Engineers, which I didn’t have any reason to doubt. I considered the Corps an element of the military. I presumed that the officers of the Corps of Engineers were telling me the truth. But, as I investigated their figures, I found that sometimes—if there was a question about economic benefits of the Sprewell Bluff project—they would triple the alleged benefits with no substantiating data to back up the change. They kept emphasizing the need for another broadwater lake in the vicinity, despite the fact that within 50 miles of the Sprewell Bluff site there were already a half dozen or more lakes. None of those lakes had realized the Corps of Engineers projections for economic benefits of tourism or for surface use. If anybody wanted to go back and look at the Corps of Engineers analysis of benefits that would accrue in tourism, they would find that those benefits are just a complete passel of lies and exaggerations to justify a project the Corps wanted to construct and that a member of congress wanted to have constructed. It would give the Corps work to do and justify its existence, and they thought nobody would question it.

The Corps brought up flood control. They said that the dam would prevent flooding in the lower reaches of the Flint River. This proved to be totally unfounded. The only way you can control flooding with a dam of this kind, I learned at the time, is to reduce the water level in the lake by 10 feet in anticipation of heavy rains so that when the rains fall, instead of running downstream, the rain would fill up the lake. Well, you can’t anticipate that. By the Corps’ own estimates, Sprewell Bluff dam would have had little effect in flood control below Lakes Blackshear and Chehaw. For instance, had the project been built prior to the 1925 Albany flood, damages of $2,000,000 would have been reduced by only $35,700. (A similar marginal difference in flood impact would have been the case in the 1994 flood.) In Bainbridge, a 10-year flood interval would have been increased to 12 years with river depth being lowered from 33.5 feet to 32.5 feet.

I finally decided to call a press conference on October 1, 1974, and announce that my final judgment was that this dam should be vetoed. There was a furor raised—primarily by the chambers of commerce and the folks dedicated to Congressman Flint.

When I became President of the United States, the Sprewell Bluff dam event was a very important memory for me, an experience that was instructive. I began to look on all the Corps of Engineers projects in the other 49 states that were moving inexorably toward final approval and that were not being questioned. I began to question those dams. As President, I had the prerogative to veto them, and I began to do that. I wasn’t a dictator, and I have to admit that some of the ill-advised projects were approved. But, overwhelmingly, they were disapproved. It created one of the most difficult confrontations between me and members of Congress of anything I did while I was in office. I was also instrumental in helping get the law changed so that for a project, such as the one the Corps proposed at Sprewell Bluff, local people would have to put up 25 percent of the money; before, it was 100 percent Washington financing. So, it’s likely that my experience at Sprewell Bluff has basically changed the U.S. national attitude toward dams and their ill-advised nature in many cases.

Nowadays, the big altercation is how many of these enormous dams should be removed. The Corps of Engineers is now devoting part of its time to analyzing how it can take some of these dams out. Not only have many dams served their original purposes, but they are now becoming filled with sediment. Instead of the water being 90 feet deep at the dam, it is now only 20 feet deep; in 50 more years, it’s going to be 2 feet deep.

Sometimes Rosalyn and I stop in Thomaston on our way from Atlanta to Plains. I have had many people come up to me and confess that they cursed me profoundly when I vetoed the dam. But now they are thankful for my having done it. They are glad that the river was saved. I think it has been worth all the confrontations and the debates and sometimes disharmonies that have resulted from what is still an ongoing process in America of preserving things instead of trying to modify them in an unnecessary fashion. Those people have—we all have—a precious possession along that river. It is not adequately used now. But anyone who wants to experience the way Georgia was when God made it or the way it was when it was first settled by white people can go to the upper parts of the Flint River and see how beautiful it is. It is breathtaking in its beauty. And the wildlife that exist in that river corridor: otter, fox, muskrat, beaver, bobcat… You cannot describe it. It is a treasure. A treasure that is appreciated by an increasing number of people as the generations pass.

Lakes and dams are everywhere. But to experience something that is undisturbed and has its natural beauty? You hope and pray that it will be there a thousand years in the future, still just as beautiful and undisturbed.

President Carter wrote this as a preface for The Flint River: A Recreational Guidebook to the Flint River and Environs by Fred Brown and Sherri Smith Brown

Read Suzanne Welander’s Paddling Guide to the Flint River

Brown's Guide
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