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The Oconee River Watershed Partnership – Working to Protect Drinking Water

Photo: North Oconee River by Mike Lord

The location of the University of Georgia in Athens was chosen because of its easy access to large quantities of clean water. Located just up the hill from the North Oconee River, the original 633-acre site boasted a cool spring that produced over one thousand gallons of water each day. A number of other nearby springs and streams readily supplied the growing academic and residential populations.

But as the area grew, the quality and quantity of these springs and streams were degraded by development. Today, Athen’s drinking water comes from the North Oconee River and Bear Creek Reservoir. In fact, Bear Creek Reservoir supplies water to Athens-Clarke, Oconee, Jackson and Barrow counties. Around ninety-five percent of all drinking water in the area comes from surface water sources such as rivers, lakes and streams.

But just like before, as the area grows, the quality and quantity of the surface water used for drinking water is declining. The US Forest Service estimates that 35-40% of Athens drinking water comes directly from upstream forests. An analysis of conservation potential in the Upper Oconee watershed projects 20,000 acres of these water-producing forests will be lost in the next twenty years.

With the added complexity of the unknown impacts of climate change and development on our watershed’s forests, it’s time to act now to protect our water into the future.

The Oconee River Watershed Partnership aims to secure drinking water resiliency for Athens and the Oconee River watershed through long-term forestland conservation and restoration. Managing forests as a sustainable resource protects the processes that filter and store the rainwater that eventually becomes drinking water. By working with conservation organizations, like the Oconee River Land Trust, drinking water providers, and the forestry sector, the Partnership is creating a collaborative framework to generate sustained funding for private landowner outreach, conservation easement acquisition and implementation of sustainable forestry practices.

To learn more about the Oconee River Watershed Partnership, visit their website at

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