In the heart of North Georgia lies the Etowah River. It stretches 164 miles, starting in Dahlonega and ending in Rome, where it feeds into the Coosa River. The Etowah River runs straight through the backyards of Cherokee County residents.

How Individuals Make a Difference
“The Upper Etowah River Alliance (UERA) is a community-based watershed protection group that works in the Etowah basin upstream of Lake Allatoona,” explains Lori Forrester, leader of the Adopt-A-Stream Program. “We formed in 1997 to provide regional leadership to promote watershed protection strategies across the five Upper Etowah counties: Cherokee, Forsyth, Pickens, Dawson, and Lumpkin.”

According to UERA Executive Director Laine Kirby Wood, “We are advocates for healthy environments. The alliance’s purpose is to protect, educate, and preserve as much of the river as possible for current and future generations.” The alliance partners with community members to conserve, sustain, and protect the environmental health and water quality of the Upper Etowah Watershed. It thereby creates better recreational opportunities for everyone to enjoy for years to come.

The river is a gift to our community, but what makes the Etowah River so special?
The river is great for kayaking and canoeing, and it also houses a vast ecosystem. “With seventy-six native fish species, the Etowah watershed is biologically one of the richest river systems in the world. I feel lucky to live in such a special place,” Lori says.

Bud Freeman has been researching species in the Etowah River for years. More recently he has been conducting genetic research on the indigenous Etowah Darter, which is found in the Upper Etowah Watershed. It cannot be found anywhere else in the world. “It’s really neat when a new species is discovered in your backyard,” says Laine.

Bud and his wife, Mary, were recently recognized for their research in the most fitting way possible. A newer darter species has been named after them. The Bridled Darter’s scientific name, Percina freemanorum, has a special meaning pertaining to the Freemans. “Freemanorum means two Freemans, so Mary and me. The little fish is relatively rare in the Etowah system but can be found in the Upper Etowah River. That means I get to work on something named after me—named after us—and that’s pretty cool.”

The unique biodiversity makes the river in our backyard seem even more marvelous. We need to protect the many species as well as think about our drinking water. “Clean water should be on the top of everyone’s mind. Pollution to the system needs to be identified and polluters need to be held accountable. We are muddying up the water; we, as in most humans. It seriously matters to everyone locally,” explains Laine.

The UERA is partnering with Keep Cherokee Beautiful. Volunteers in both organizations have double the opportunities to keep our community clean. Members and volunteers of Keep Cherokee Beautiful pick up trash along the roadways to keep it out of storm sewers. If pollution can stay out of storm sewers, it won’t be affecting the river.  “We can stop pollution at its source,” says Laine.

Bud explains, “The Etowah is the biggest tributary to the Allatoona Reservoir, and the water quality needs to be maintained there.” Protecting the tributaries is key. “Think of the river like it’s a tree with no leaves. There are a million branches, but if they are cut off, nothing is going into the trunk.”

 It seems like a daunting task to protect such a large watershed, but the UERA makes it more manageable with tips, fun-filled events, and memberships that bring people together to make a big difference. The alliance is funded by donations, memberships, and grants. It also gets money from the Cherokee County and Cherokee County Water and Sewerage Authority.

The alliance is always accepting new members. Getting involved in the cause is as simple as joining. Memberships range from $15 to $50. It’s $15 for students, $25 for individuals, and $50 for a family.

People can also participate in river clean-up events. “It’s something you can do not only for the alliance, but also for your community,” explains Laine. Small acts can make a large impact on the river. Some events include kayaking or canoeing down the river or hiking along the banks to collect trash.

The alliance also offers educational classes, such as rain-barrel workshops.

Another exciting program locals can get involved in is the Adopt-A-Stream Program. It is a volunteer water-monitoring program wherein citizens learn how to test the water for chemical, bacterial, and biological aspects. Lori leads these excursions and trains volunteers on how to test water samples along the Etowah River properly. She also teaches a variety of other environmental educational courses. The alliance has forty-seven water-testing sites and fifteen teams working to protect the river. The alliance is seeking ten more organizations, neighborhoods, or companies that want to become an Adopt-A-Stream group.

Other ways individuals can make an impression is to be water aware. Take shorter showers, pick up litter when you are in or around the river or on the trails surrounding it. Be vigilant about sediment, and most importantly, if you see something that doesn’t look right, say something. UERA has a Who to Call list on its website under the Resources tab to help you find the correct department to call.

Using chemical pesticides and fertilizers in yards is another area of concern. Switching to natural substances will lower the amount of chemicals washed into the river. “They are all little things you can do, but if lots of people did it, we could make a big difference,” Bud says.

The alliance supports recreational use of the river. It wants people to love the river as much as members of the alliance do. Canoeing and kayaking on the river is fun, but if you are not a water person, many great trails wind in and around the rivers in our watershed. “We want recreational users. That is our purpose. We want fishing. We want people picnicking along the river. If they love it, then they’ll protect it. If we make them love it, get them on it, in it, and beside it, then they will have a vested personal interest in protecting it. It’s vital,” Laine explains. She is passionate about connecting people to the river and growing their passion
for waterway.

In the near future the UERA hopes to have more than two hundred members and build four more launch sites on the Upper Etowah River, two of which would be in Cherokee County. Laine’s main goal as director is to keep the organization focused on its mission and to keep it relevant in the community, because of its importance.

Bud explains that we have made big strides compared to what the river used to be, “But there is still much more we could do. People need to be involved, to keep it a vibrant place to be.”

Learn more about The Upper Etowah River Alliance and how you can get involved by visiting