real questions we get asked all the time

Where does the Flint River start? Is there a spring somewhere?

The US Geological Survey (USGS) defines "headwaters" as the most distant water source from the end of a river, which means that a tiny stream near the railroad junction in downtown East Point is, technically, the start of the Flint River. On topographical maps as far back as 1895, you can see a network of small streams in East Point and “Manchester” (now College Park) that come together to form the Flint River. These groundwater sources have been buried, shifted, piped, and built-over during a hundred years of urban growth.

There is no springhouse to visit, but the first place where the headwaters see daylight is a fenced-off drainage basin next door to Woodward Academy’s practice track on Willingham Drive in East Point. Peek through the fence of this triangular plot between Willingham Drive, Vesta Avenue, and Elm Street and you’ll see the baby creek.

Why is there an airport on top of the headwaters?

The wide, flat area where Asa Candler built his racetrack in 1909 lay undeveloped in part because it was swampy bottomland, crisscrossed by the headwaters of the Flint. Candler Field, and later Atlanta Municipal Airport, grew up alongside these creeks, and in 1941, according to Betsy Braden and Paul Hagan in A Dream Takes Flight, the airport's runways extended "far enough to cross the Flint, necessitating the first of many projects to contain its flow." By 1975, most of the Flint on the property was enclosed in a large culvert for the modern airport. Today, the headwaters are piped under or alongside the world's busiest airport.

Do we drink water from the Flint River?

The Clayton County Water Authority operates the first municipal water intake on the Flint River, partly filling its water supply reservoirs with water pumped from the Flint. Fayette County, Coweta County, Newnan and Griffin also withdraw water from the Flint or its tributary streams for drinking water supply. The river system provides water for farms and families from south Metro Atlanta to all the way to the Florida state line.

Where can I get to the river? Is it safe?

The first official public access site on the Flint River is Morgan Grove Nature Area in Fayetteville.

You can see the headwaters from bridges and sidewalks in the Tri-Cities and unincorporated Clayton County. Explore at your own risk and avoid trespassing on private property, especially near secure airport zones. 

Other publicly accessible sites on tributaries in the headwaters area include the Line Creek Nature Area and Flat Creek Nature Area in Peachtree City, Sam’s Lake Sanctuary, “The Ridge” in Fayetteville, and Starr’s Mill Pond on Whitewater Creek in Fayette County.

Canoeing or kayaking the Flint River is not recommended much upstream of the Joe Kurz Wildlife Management Area near Gay, Georgia in northern Meriwether County. Upstream of the confluence of the Flint River with Line Creek, both streams have braided channels through swampy bottomlands that are slow-going under most conditions and unsafe in high flows. For more information, see the Flint River User’s Guide by Joe Cook, or get in touch with the team working on the Flint River Water Trail.

Can improvements at the headwaters really help flows in the river?

Yes. Green infrastructure in this highly urbanized environment can help restore natural flows. Instead of rushing off impermeable surfaces, rainwater could slowly infiltrate the ground and recharge the riparian system. While we can't daylight the river "inside the fence," a focus on runoff reduction across the airport’s 4,700-acre footprint will directly benefit regular flows in the Flint. Various project partners are exploring the possibilities for re-worked infrastructure at various scales, from individual small properties up to the landscape scale, for green infrastructure solutions to the headwaters’ challenges.

Are the headwaters polluted? Is there jet fuel in the river?

Spills of jet fuel and de-icing fluid at Hartsfield-Jackson are rare, but they can happen. The airport and downstream water utilities have multiple measures in place to detect and capture contaminants before they enter our creeks and rivers— from holding tanks to absorbent booms along storm drains. Any municipal intake that draws water from the Flint first sends it to a local reservoir and then to a treatment plant before it reaches consumers.

The good news: peer into the urban headwaters and you will see the usual signs of creek life—tadpoles and snakes, dragonflies and turtles. Despite the litter and runoff from parking lots, backyards, and industrial areas, the creeks are still alive. The more that local residents get involved in citizen science and water quality monitoring, the more we will know about the health of the headwaters.

Does the Flint flood?

Yes. During heavy rain, the headwaters surge into parking lots and backyards. In College Park, residential areas that used to experience severe flooding have been replaced by secure detention ponds, but occasionally stormwater causes the bridge at Upper Riverdale Road, near Southern Regional Medical Center, to flood.

Are you trying to daylight the river under the airport?

No. We are not proposing any disruption to the airfield. We would like to leverage the airport’s regional leadership and global visibility (over 100 million passengers a year!) to bring awareness to the Flint River through public art, educational exhibits, and campaigns like Delta's Change the Course.

Is the airport supportive of Finding the Flint?

Finding the Flint has received early enthusiasm and collaboration from the airport’s Executive Leadership, particularly the Offices of Planning, Asset Management & Sustainability, Public Affairs, and Communications. The Office of Planning and Asset Management, for example, is leading the airport’s green stormwater infrastructure planning and implementation, and they regularly host our Working Group at Hartsfield-Jackson’s Technical Campus. We are currently working with the Offices of Engineering, Security, and Real Estate to explore realistic and feasible opportunities to restore the headwaters near the airport.

Where has a project like Finding the Flint been done before? 

We have been studying some inspiring examples of urban river restoration projects like:

We also love airport-area parks, trails, and public spaces like:

Finding the Flint is kind of a combination of the two concepts, so it might be world's first airport-area river revitalization project.

Who is paying for all this?

Phase 1. Vision: Working with grants from the Pisces Foundation and the Kresge Foundation to promote innovative urban water management, two national nonprofits—American Rivers and The Conservation Fund—teamed up with the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) and hired Ryan Gravel’s firm, Sixpitch to produce the Finding the Flint vision.

Phase 2. Coalition Building: Next, we expanded our Core Team to include Eco-Action and the Partnership for Southern Equity to guide community engagement for the project. With a 2018 grant from the Turner Foundation, we launched the Working Group. Many supporters like Delta Air Lines, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Aerotropolis Atlanta Community Improvement Districts (CIDs), the Clayton County Water Authority, and Woodward Academy have donated meeting space, transportation, and coffee to keep us going. In 2018, ARC awarded a short-term contract to Pond & Co. for landscape architecture services to further develop site concepts along the headwaters.

Phase 3. Breaking Ground: Finding the Flint is a big vision composed of many distinct projects along the headwaters, big and small, public and private, from new parks to retrofitted parking lots. Each project will depend on local partners with their own community goals and opportunities to impact the river, who will bring their own resources and funding to the table. 

Are you working with the Flint Riverkeeper? The Aerotropolis Alliance?

Yes. Years of work by the Flint Riverkeeper and the Aerotropolis Alliance are part of the reason this project exists. Both are enthusiastic early supporters and founding members of the Working Group.

What is the Working Group? What is their commitment?

The FTF Working Group is a diverse, voluntary group of Flint River headwaters stakeholders working together to make this vision a reality. In October 2017, we first convened the Working Group that includes the airport, businesses, municipalities, institutions, neighborhood organizations, and residents who can help give the Flint River a voice in this area. Some successful examples of Working Groups that provide direction for river revitalization and restoration projects include: Bronx River Alliance, Lower LA River Working Group, and the Harlem River Working Group.

Is this river in Michigan?

While there is a Flint River in Michigan (and probably many other states), Finding the Flint is focused on Georgia’s Flint River, our state’s second longest river, one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the nation. It begins in the Atlanta Airport area and travels south, joining with the Chattahoochee River to form the Apalachicola and flow to the Gulf of Mexico.

What has the community response been like?

"Mind blown." "A community treasure." Most metro-Atlanta residents are surprised to learn that the Flint River begins in this area and that it runs underneath the airport. Some longtime residents recall flooding problems or remember searching for crawdads in the creeks, but few realize that this is the Flint River or connect these creeks to larger watershed issues, like the tri-state “water wars.” We have been calling the Flint, “the most important river Atlanta’s never heard of.” Most community members immediately ask, "How can I get involved?"

How can I get involved?

Sign up for our newsletter and/or follow us on Facebook to hear about community tours, river cleanups, design workshops, and opportunities to get your boots muddy. Donate at AmericanRivers.org/donate or ConservationFund.org/donate and note your support of “Finding the Flint." Help spread the word to your friends, colleagues, and elected officials. Share your ideas and explorations with #findingtheflint.