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County’s watershed lakes ‘a forgotten treasure’

  • County Planning and Zoning Director James Holloway, left, and Paul Nealey, district vice-chairman of the Limestone Valley Resource Conservation and Development Council, stand on the Ellijay Watershed Dam No. 10 in Cherry Log. Holloway called the lake one of the most scenic of the 20 watershed lakes in the county. (Contributed photo)
by Mark Millican

Paul Nealey remembers working as a boy with his late father, Willard, at the old farmers co-op on the northern edge of town by the Ellijay River.

“The water got so high when it flooded we had to move the feed and seed out of the way,” he recalled.

It wasn’t just the co-op that was affected. Many farmers in the days before dams and watershed lakes were built in Gilmer County saw their fields flooded and crops destroyed when water came rushing out of the mountains after hard or prolonged rain. Older residents of Ellijay remember when the intersection at the Dairy Queen — South Main Street and Industrial Boulevard — was completely underwater when the Coosawattee River swelled out of its banks.

The federal government began funding and building the first of what were to become 20 flood-control lakes in the county in the late 1960s and ’70s through the former U.S. Soil Conservation Service — now the Natural Resource Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — and the Limestone Valley Resource Conservation and Development Council. Limestone Valley was formerly federally funded under the NRCS, but due to recent budget cuts the council is now a stand-alone nonprofit group, according to the limestonevalley.org website.

Nealey has served on Limestone Valley’s board of directors at the district level for 35 years.

“The lakes were designed not only to control floodwater, but also to catch silt,” he said while standing on the dam of Ellijay Watershed Dam No. 10 at Cherry Log. “In fact, they can fill up with silt over time. There are areas in the county that are very steep, and the water runs very quickly.”

Cherry Log Creek flows south from the Gilmer-Fannin county line to fill up No. 10, then flows out of its spillway to meet up with Rock Creek just below the dam. Together, the two tributaries form the Ellijay River, Nealey said.

County Planning and Zoning Director James Holloway noted Gilmer has one-third of the 60 lakes in the five-county Limestone Valley district that includes Cherokee, Murray, Pickens and Whitfield.

“I’m glad Gilmer got the number (of dams and lakes) they did,” he said while scanning the Cherry Log lake, calling it one of the most scenic. “We have more mountains and steeper mountains than the other counties. With the recent rains we’ve had Ellijay would be underwater without these lakes.”

He added the Gilmer watershed lakes have “never had a dam break” through the years.

A breakdown shows seven dams/lakes in the Cartecay area, four in Mountaintown, eight in the Ellijay River area  that flank the Highway 515 corridor to Blue Ridge, and one in Talking Rock.

Economic impact

Dena Roberts, an area engineer with the NRCS who covers 42 counties in north Georgia and inspects the dams in Gilmer County, said they have also had an economic impact.

“More lands below (the lakes) and in those bottoms were able to go into (crop) production and also, the counties are seeing a lot of benefits from the protection to infrastructure downstream — the roads and bridges and culverts and stuff like that, not having as much damage done to them,” she said.

Nealey has served as chairman of the Limestone Valley district board and is now vice-chairman. Mark Holden of Ellijay is the current chairman.

“These lakes are a tremendous asset, but almost a forgotten asset,” Holden said. He credited Gilmer County government with maintaining the dams — which are owned by Limestone Valley while local property owners usually own the lakefronts — by keeping them mowed and free of brush.

“If we didn’t have these lakes, the recent rain events we’ve had would have flooded a lot of property. They also promote wildlife,” he said while standing on the lake shore at Cartecay Dam No. 10. “They’re a forgotten treasure.”

Most of the lakes are not open for fishing or other public access without the permission of the property owners around them, Nealey pointed out. 
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