Sustainable Georgia: Two Decades And Change

I’m thrilled as a dad to be able to take my son Holden out on the Chattahoochee River. I can remember “shooting the Hooch” as a kid myself, and I have long envied cities that have made good use of their rivers for recreation.

For awhile there, the Hooch was off limits as a result of runaway water pollution. Sally Bethea, who is stepping down this year as Chattahoochee Riverkeeper founding director, can be credited with the turnaround.

It wasn’t that far back in American history when rivers like the Cuyahoga in Ohio would catch fire because they were polluted. In the 1960s, bacteria levels in the Hudson River were 170 times the safe limit.

Laura Turner Seydel and Rutherford Seydel started the Chatthoochee Riverkeeper (CRK) 20 years ago based on the Hudson Riverkeeper and that entity’s success. “At the time we were the 11th licensed organization known as the Riverkeeper,” says Bethea.“Now there are over 220 around the world, including seven in Georgia.”

Back in 1994, “everyone knew there was raw sewage in the creeks going downstream, and the business and regulatory communities weren’t adequately protecting the river system,” says Bethea. “We needed to do water quality monitoring that government agencies weren’t able or willing to provide, and more than that, we wanted to have fun on the river again.”

Shooting the Hooch may never be as fun as it was in the ‘70s, when rock music blared and the river was crowded with party animals, but the river can still be enjoyed by quieter paddlers, says Bethea, “especially 65 miles downstream [from Atlanta], which had really been written off.” In 2012, CRK dropped the “Upper” from the front of its name to focus on a more cohesive approach to cleaning up the river basin, which runs from Helen to Columbus.

“In 1995, we organized a coalition of downstream chambers of commerce, landowners and businesses who were tired of not being able to use West Point Lake,” she says. “We reached out to [then Atlanta Mayor] Bill Campbell and the Environmental Protection Agency, got no response, and took it to court.”

The lawsuit took three years, but in true David and Goliath fashion, the CRK won. Bethea calls the victory “the biggest accomplishment and legacy of the last 20 years.” Some 1,500 miles of water lines, manufacturing facilities and overflows were repaired in an ongoing effort mostly tackled by Campbell’s successor, Shirley Franklin. “Shirley did a phenomenal job on that even though the business community was not on that bandwagon – they had to be brought along, even with the future of Atlanta at stake,” says Bethea. It took a dozen years and placed a burden on the ratepayers, but the work paid off.

As of July 1, Atlanta was scheduled to complete all sewer-related improvement projects required by the ruling, and “our monitoring shows that the river is dramatically improved. We have achieved a significant milestone.”

In the process, CRK has created “an organization of incredible, technically skilled individuals who respond when government fails and they have nowhere to go.” A network of volunteers have helped clear more than 1.6 million pounds of trash from rivers, lakes and streams. 

“Looking back, I am excited to see how the public has engaged in these issues, and I’m proud of companies in Georgia that really get what being sustainable is all about,” she says.

“It also disappoints me that too many of the big business leaders are still stuck in the past, maintaining an ‘us vs. environmentalists’ attitude that’s not going to cut it any more,” she adds. “It’s time for more transparency and an actual dialogue about solutions, not continued polarization fomented by business groups.”

To that end, Bethea notes that CRK has created a “floating classroom” that educates 4,500 students annually who will eventually help Georgia leaders grasp the importance of sustainability.

CRK will celebrate its 20th anniversary this month with a gala at Atlanta’s Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead. And be sure to enjoy the Chattahoochee River itself. Contact CRK via www.chattahoochee.org for a schedule of outings and paddle events along the river, or visit one of the many parks along its banks, including two riverside adventure centers operated by Nantahala Outdoor Center that are scheduled to open next spring. After years of restricted access, it’s worth the wait.

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