Farms and Fish: Friend or Foe?

Moooving Conservation Forward

Conservancy scientist Paul Freeman explains why cows are not meant to roam in the Conasauga River.


 Small fish like darters struggle to survive when water becomes clogged with nutrients and sediments.

By Sherry Crawley

We all know it is important to “love thy neighbor.” But in the Upper Coosa River Basin in northwest Georgia, endangered and threatened fish and mussels are finding themselves neighbors with livestock like cattle and chickens. And they aren’t getting along.

Watch a video and find out why.

There’s no delicate way to say it: cow patties and chicken poop contain nasty chemicals that harm fish and mussel habitat.

Northwest Georgia is home to many cattle and chicken farms. Whether in the form of runoff from fields or from animals having access to wade in the river, waste from livestock is a real threat to the wildlife in the water.

  • No other river basin in North America has a higher percentage of endemic species than the Upper Coosa River Basin. Thirty species of fishes, mussels, snails and crayfishes call the waters of the Coosa—and nowhere else—home.
  • Populations of the 43 historic species of mussels found in the Coosa Basin have declined since the 1970s, a tragedy given that the basin is one of the richest in the Southeast when it comes to mussel diversity.
The Riffles Are the Rub

A riffle is a shallow stretch of a river or stream with a rocky bed of stones where the water forms small rippled waves. Macro invertebrates that serve as food for other fish live in riffles. And small fish like the endangered Etowah and Cherokee darters, spawn in riffles.

And it just so happens that cows enjoy the riffles too. They use these shallow areas as a drinking fountain and toilet at the same time. This activity deposits nutrients in the water. Furthermore, when they clamor in and out of the river, they damage the banks, depositing sediment in the riffles.

“Small fish like darters don’t do well with much sediment or high nutrient concentrations,” said Katie Owens, the Conservancy’s Upper Coosa River Basin project director.

“The sediment settles in crevices, making it hard for fish to dig for food between rocks. And the increased nutrients allow algae to grow at an exponential rate, which removes oxygen from the water. We are essentially starving and choking endangered fish.”

Can't We All Just Get Along? 

The Conservancy is working on several fronts to improve water quality in the Upper Coosa River Basin, including:

  • working with partners to fence off sections of river,
  • helping farmers dig small wells to provide water for livestock, and 
  • finding ways to reduce the amount of toxins running off agricultural fields into the water.

“We’ve got to work with farmers and the local community to keep cows out of the water and filter the water that is running from farms into the river,” Katie said. “We depend on our rivers for drinking water, industry, recreation, and a host of other uses, so it is our collective responsibility to keep our waterways healthy.”