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Water flows down the Conasauga River Thursday, July 19, 2018 at the Conasauga Snorkeling hole in Polk County, Tennessee.

Volunteers will meet across seven locations in Northwest Georgia this weekend to pull tons of litter from one of the most aquatically biodiverse watersheds in the temperate world.

The 25th annual Conasauga River Watershed Cleanup will be from 9 a.m. until noon Saturday in Whitfield and Murray counties.

"[The Conasauga River] really does stand out in terms of its biodiversity," event organizer John Lugthart said. "That's actually a big part of our cleanup effort. We not only want to clean up some of these sites, but we want to bring attention to the wonderful diversity we have in our backyard."

Seventy-six species of fish live in the Conasauga River. The river is less than 100 miles long, but there are dozens of salamanders, mussels, snails, crayfish and other invertebrate species beneath the surface. It's also home to three federally threatened or endangered fish, six threatened or endangered mussels and 16 state-listed species. There are two fish species in the river found nowhere else in the world — Conasauga logperch and Amber darter.

The river is one of the only waterways in the region without a dam, which allows it to remain in its natural state and retain its biodiversity.

"You not only have this incredible biodiversity but you have these really rare animals," Tennessee Aquarium biologist Bernie Kuhajda, who has led several studies on species in the river, said. "It is one of the pearls of the Southeast, there's no doubt."

Cleanup site

1. Conasauga River at Carlton Petty Road bridge

2. Conasauga River at Highway 2 bridge

3. Conasauga River at Lower King’s/Norton Bridge

4. Holly Creek, Murray County, on the Chattahoochee National Forest

5. Mill Creek tributary in the city of Dalton

6. Coahulla Creek at Prater’s Mill

7. Lakeshore Park in the city of Dalton

Lugthart help lead the first cleanup in 1995. The Dalton State biology professor was working with Keep Dalton-Whitfield Beautiful — a Keep America Beautiful affiliate — which still helps organize the event to this day.

Trash was piling up in the river, especially near Mitchell Bridge connecting Whitfield and Murray counties along the decommissioned Old Mitchell Bridge Road.

The site had turned into a dumping ground, so the group organized a cleanup. Two-hundred-and-thirty people came the first year, and the group removed 14.6 tons of garbage, Lugthart said. It remains the most trash the group has ever pulled out of the river in one day.

Nearby residents came to thank the volunteers, telling them they historically had used the river for baptisms and were glad to see it cleaned.

"That was really satisfying," Lugthart said. "It was beautiful by the end."

They decided to make it an annual event. To date, more than 6,000 volunteers have pulled 254,000 pounds of litter from the watershed.

It's one of the largest community volunteer events in the area. More than a dozen local companies and organizations sponsor and coordinate the cleanup. The companies make up the flooring industry, colleges, nonprofits and government agencies.

"I am glad that we have been able to help take care of this wonderful natural resource, the Conasauga River, over all these years," event organizer Gretchen Lugthart, John Lugthart's wife, said. "However, each year it is evident that the job is not done because people continue to litter."

Participants are encouraged to arrive early and should bring sturdy shoes, long pants and long-sleeve shirts — all of which should be expected to get dirty. Gloves and trash bags will be provided. No pre-registration is required. Interested volunteers can show up at any of the seven sites.

Contact Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.

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