Beyond the Bridge: Protecting the beauty of the South River

According to healthy river advocate Jackie Echols, most people only see Atlanta’s rivers from bridges. Echols wants to get people off the bridges and down to the banks with the creation of the South River Neighborhood Network.

“Most don’t know the name of the creek in their backyard,” said Echols, who is president of the South River Watershed Alliance. “It’s important for people to have a name and become aware of how they can improve it.”

On Earth Day in April, the South River Water Alliance partnered with The Nature Conservancy, Park Pride, Trees Atlanta and organizations to create a network that supports the 60-mile long South River. The South River has its headwaters north of Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport and runs through six counties before emptying into Lake Jackson.

The South River Neighborhood Network initiative will advocate and maintain five “urban forest” projects in DeKalb County and the City of Atlanta.

Developing greenspaces is the first line of defense for rivers. Not only do they catch debris and pollution before they can even hit the water, but are critical in urban biological diversity. The first projects in the initiative include building a new trail to better connect residents to the Chapel Hill Park in Decatur, maintaining a native plant pollinator garden at the Wylde Center, removing invasive species at the 200-acre Constitution Lakes wetlands and creating trails at Thomasville Heights and Redan Nature Reserve.

As part of the South River Neighborhood Network, the South River Water Alliance will perform their first water testing as an organized effort. Echols envisions water tests to be an event during which people can learn about the creeks in their neighborhood.

Echols is hoping residents will report the real time data to their DeKalb County and that the data will provide evidence that county’s Clean Water Act must be upheld. “Water tests arm folks with information to have that conversation and advocate for the creeks and streams in their neighborhoods,” she said.

Myriam Dormer, urban conservation director for The Nature Conservancy in Georgia, said sanitary sewer overflow is a sensitive subject in DeKalb. “The county is working to address this, but residents don’t understand the scale of this problem,” Dormer said. “We do want people to use their local creeks and streams as an amenity, but the awareness of the presence of the South River in the region is very low.”

The water-monitoring program will raise mindfulness and allows for what Dormer calls “citizen science.” Any member of the community can track water quality over time and share the information with their neighbors. Neighbors can then chat, often through online platforms like Nextdoor and Facebook, to share updates on the water quality.

This passion for protecting local creeks and rivers is usually sparked by seeing the beauty of the river. One of Echols’ first projects as president of the South River Water Alliance was to organize a canoe outing to see exactly what they would be improving. A team of nearly 25 people rented canoes from Atlanta outfitter White Water Georgia Learning Outfitter, set off from Panola Shoals and floated down over six miles of remote, tranquil river. They rarely heard a car.

“Seeing just how beautiful the river is often is the best way we can raise awareness,” Echols said.

For more information, visit southriverga.org.

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