Originally created 02/11/00

Study of river in-depth



ATHENS, Ga. -- More than a dozen University of Georgia researchers are beginning the second phase of a long-term, multimillion-dollar research project aimed at understanding a system that might be even more complex than the Wall Street financial markets -- the Georgia coastal zone.

Researchers are just finishing the first part of their research, a three-year, $3 million study of the five river systems that empty into the Atlantic Ocean through the vast stretch of salt marsh that separates the state from the sea.

That study, six months from completion, will now be followed by a six-year, $4.2 million study focusing on Sapelo Island and the Altamaha River, which is not only the state's largest river but also has one of largest watersheds in the eastern United States.

The Altamaha basin drains one-quarter of the state and extends to Atlanta. It includes the North and Middle Oconee rivers, which flow through Athens. Sapelo is a large barrier island at the mouth of the Altamaha.

The study will involve 16 researchers, mostly from University of Georgia's School of Marine Programs, said Tim Hollibaugh, the project leader and associate director of marine programs at the school.

Before the study began, surprisingly little was known about the complex biological and physical processes of the Georgia coastal area, said marine scientist Merryl Alber, one of the project researchers.

There are still more questions than answers, but the researchers are beginning to understand "basic processes," Dr. Alber said.

Researchers have learned that bacteria play a much more important role in biological activity than first suspected.

"They've discovered whole new groups of bacteria. We didn't realize how important they are," Dr. Hollibaugh said.

They've also learned that the movement of coastal water is more complex than they expected; water that came from the Savannah basin winds up in the Altamaha estuary, for example.

Some of what they have learned already has helped shaped policy decisions.

One part of the first project, for example, used computer models to gauge the flushing times for each of the five river basins. Flushing time is the time it takes for water to "flush out," from the place on a river where the flow begins to rise and fall with the tide, down to the mouth of the river.