By Sally Bethea
Caitlyn Smith and her cousin Shaun Alexander dropped the water sampling device into the muddy stream below them on an overcast day in early November.
The pre-sterilized Whirl-Pak bag bobbed on the surface of the fast-moving water for a few seconds, then plunged into the stream and filled; the sample was one of 133 collected during the 2nd Annual Proctor Creek Rendezvous, a one-day watershed monitoring project.
A junior at Georgia State University majoring in geoscience, Caitlyn had seen a flyer announcing the monitoring event posted on a college bulletin board. She was taking a class in landforms and wanted to know more about watersheds – how they work and how streams are affected by land use and other human activities.
Earlier that day, Caitlyn and Shaun joined 100 volunteers at Grove Park Recreation Center in northwest Atlanta for training before heading out to assigned sampling stations on Proctor Creek and its tributaries.
While the citizen scientists collected their samples, the Rendezvous organizers – Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (CRK), West Atlanta Watershed Alliance and Georgia Adopt-A-Stream – turned the training room into a lab to analyze the water taken from forty-one locations.
CRK’s Jason Ulseth correctly predicted higher than usual levels of E. coli bacteria in the samples, due to the contaminants that flowed into the streams in storm runoff from rain that fell for days preceding this year’s event.
Ulseth also noted that the long-term, trend data – the best indicator of stream health – has shown a significant improvement in water quality in this blighted watershed: a thirty-three percent decrease in bacteria levels in recent years.
Proctor Creek’s healthier report card is due in no small part to the efforts of community volunteers and their data which has led to city investigations and the end to dozens of chronic sewage leaks.
Recent successes build on the past: 20 years ago, CRK filed a lawsuit to stop the city of Atlanta from dumping untreated sewage into local waterways. That action led to the city’s investment of $2 billion in a massive sewer system upgrade, including more than $100 million in the Proctor Creek watershed.
Today, Proctor Creek is the subject of national attention through its designation by the Urban Waters Federal Partnership as a priority watershed, bringing additional support and resources from the U.S. EPA and other agencies.
Locally, Park Pride, The Conservation Fund, Proctor Creek Stewardship Council, Trust for Public Land and others are working with the city to protect green space and create public parks in the watershed. Lindsay Street Park, the first park built in Atlanta’s English Avenue neighborhood, officially opened in October.
It takes a village – stream monitors, nonprofits, government agencies and investors – to bring a long-neglected area back to life. It’s happening in the Proctor Creek watershed where the future is bright.
Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (chattahoochee.org), a nonprofit environmental organization whose mission is to protect and restore the drinking water supply for nearly four million people.