CEDAR SPRINGS, Ga. (AP) -- Just off U.S. 84, a semitrailer stacked with skinny pines roars across an otherwise serene South Georgia blacktop.
And one by one, these log trucks form a line to the nearby paper mill and the heart of Early County's tax base. The trucks pump in. Their wood is processed. The paychecks of 550 people who come to work from Georgia, Florida and Alabama flow out.
But without the arterial currents of the nearby Chattahoochee River, the trucks and the cash flow come to a halt.
With an annual payroll that exceeds $50 million, the financial impact of this Georgia-Pacific container board plant spans as far as the eye can see, if not farther.
"You can stand on top of our powerhouse and see deer in fields over in Alabama," said Celia Bostwick, a longtime employee who now manages public affairs for the pulpwood facility. "...If you look across the highway -- just across 84 -- you see Florida."
While industrial water use only makes up a small percentage of the Chattahoochee's use in this end of the basin, the river's water keeps Early County's largest privately owned employer in business.
On the river's banks in Cedar Springs, Georgia-Pacific provides jobs for Georgians, Alabamans and Floridians -- many like Bostwick who have spent decades in the plant.
Since 1969, Bostwick has been commuting a half-hour each morning to work at the plant from her home in Blakely -- a commute to a job she said paid for her three sons' educations.
"There are many, many employees who have worked here 30 years or more," Bostwick said. "...When I go to schools ... I always ask the question, 'Does anyone in here have a family member or a friend that works in the paper mill?'
"Every time, there are many hands that are raised ... socially, we are all connected to the paper mill."
To keep those connections alive, Georgia-Pacific requires an average of 110 million gallons of water each day to cook pulpwood and cool electrical turbines.
And once that water has been used and treated, Georgia-Pacific can only release it back into the Chattahoochee as river levels allow, according to David Andrews, leader of environmental health and safety at the plant.
To keep from overloading the river with pollutants, there must be enough fresh water flowing down the river from Walter F. George Dam to dilute Georgia-Pacific's wastewater, Andrews said.
"When the flow gets restricted (from Walter F. George Dam), we're restricted on how much water we can release," Andrews said. "We have some water storage on site, but we can't do it forever ... so it can actually affect our production."
Low river levels during the historic drought in 2007 restricted the plant's ability to discharge wastewater, thus hindering production at the facility for two weeks, Andrews said.
"I don't know of any other time we've ever had that," he said. And floods in the 1990s "almost shut us down," Bostwick said. Until the flood waters subsided, Andrews said production at the plant was tentative from hour to hour.
"It was the scariest time that I've ever had," Bostwick said. "Just the volume of water traveling down, when you saw cows traveling down the river and trees, huge trees, and the flow was extremely rapid."
From the Chattahoochee's headwaters near Helen to its exit into the Apalachicola Bay, it seems jobs and the ability to attract jobs are always at the river's mercy.
"From agriculture to recreation to any other needs, it all boils down to money when it comes down to the ... value of our water resources and the uses that they have," said Page Estes, president of the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce.
Estes is a member of the governing board of the recently formed Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Stakeholders group, which seeks to find a way to resolve territorial battles over the river's vital and limited resource.
The group met recently at Lake Lanier in the northern reaches of the Chattahoochee basin to discuss some 14 different needs met by the river system - and impacted by its management.
Estes argued that all 14 of those needs are related to one thing: economic development.
Moving water from one part of the river to another, she said, is much like moving money.
"With anything from tourism to agriculture needs, really, we're taking water away from some areas and giving it to others, which is, in short, transferring that wealth," Estes said.
And the impact of that transfer of wealth is exactly what a group committed to keeping Lake Lanier full has set out to prove.
The recently formed 1071 Coalition commissioned a study last year to put a dollar sign on Lake Lanier, the Chattahoochee's largest reservoir.
The final study has not yet been released, but preliminary findings show the number of visitors to Lake Lanier between the months of May and September dropped from 5 million in 2007 to 4.2 million in 2008. At the same time, a record drought drew the lake's water down as much as 17 feet from its summer full pool of 1,071 feet above sea level.
And when, in May of this year, the 1071 Coalition released preliminary findings of its study, it claimed the drought had cost the region around Lanier as much as $35 million and hundreds of jobs. Much of that loss was in recreation-based industries where livelihood depends on visitors.
"It's not just for floating boats," said Wilton Rooks, a Lake Lanier resident who is also chairman of the ACF Stakeholders governing board.
"There are economic values tied to (water levels). ... The contribution of recreation to the local economies is huge."
Rooks works on a committee that represents recreational interests in the ACF Stakeholders group. He said 20 million people visit some part of the Chattahoochee River each year, and he estimates those visitors pump at least $750 million into the local economies surrounding the river.
"It's a huge number," Rooks said.
The values of properties situated on reservoirs like Lanier also affect local economies, said Estes, whose home county lies just east of West Point, another corps-managed reservoir on the Chattahoochee in west central Georgia.
"If you look at the property values of people who own these lake lots and own their homes, it was difficult for us during times of drought to watch some homes just decline drastically in terms of their value," Estes said. "And you'd ride from north to south, depending on how the water was being managed, and those property values remained strong with full pool."
But the region's reliance on the Chattahoochee can be much more intrinsic than property values and recreational spending. Clean water is central to sustaining growth.
Atlanta owes its existence to the health and wealth of the Chattahoochee. The Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper's executive director Sally Bethea also attributes the city's continued vitality to a lawsuit the organization filed against the city in 1995. 1/4
The Riverkeeper's suit claimed Atlanta had violated the Clean Water Act by releasing too much raw sewage into the river from its outdated and overloaded sewer system. The Riverkeeper won, and the Environmental Protection Agency ordered comprehensive updates to the city's sewer system.
And though the costs of those upgrades were high for Atlanta's water and sewer customers, Bethea said officials in the state's capital city claim that a recent resurgence in downtown development -- and the ensuing increase in taxable property values - would not have been possible without the upgrades.
"If you can't get clean water to people in businesses, and you can't take away their waste in an efficient, safe manner, you don't have a sustainable region," Bethea said.
But as more have come to depend upon the finite waters of the Chattahoochee to sustain their economic welfare, Atlanta's use of the water has become a sticking point in several lawsuits filed over the river's management. It's a game of tug of war where Atlanta pulls and some stakeholders downstream feel like they're holding on for dear life.
Oysterman Walt Nowling, who has spent his life harvesting seafood in Apalachicola Bay, said he sometimes feels that his livelihood plays second fiddle to the needs of Atlanta.
When, in a record drought, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers limited releases in the river to preserve Atlanta's drinking water, the lack of fresh water in the bay stunted the growth of oysters there.
And later, when Atlanta flooded in 2009, regulators closed the bay to harvesting, citing high bacteria levels in the water coming from the city.
While Nowling understands the impact of the water on Atlanta's economy, he sometimes feels that his own economic needs are drowned in those of a major metropolitan city.
"I know they need the water, but we do, too," he said.