Above the Waterline: Chattahoochee Riverkeeper celebrates its silver anniversary

Current Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth, Sally Bethea and CRK Executive Director Juliet Cohen.

On June 26, 1994, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published the first part of a series called “Troubled Waters – The strangling of the Chattahoochee.” A sub-title for one of the pieces in the multi-page spread announced: “A sick river runs through it: human filth chokes the Chattahoochee, Atlanta’s primary waterway. One reason – the city has one of the worst sewer systems in the country.”

Four months earlier, a new nonprofit organization, then called Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and now Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (CRK), had officially embarked on its daunting mission to clean up the river with a goal of ensuring enough clean water for people and wildlife. Following the lead of a dozen other “waterkeeper” organizations in a new movement, CRK’s co-founders, Laura Turner Seydel and Rutherford Seydel, chose an individual to serve as the group’s first “riverkeeper.” Incredibly, they took a chance on me – a gift that dramatically changed my life, challenging me personally and professionally in ways that I could never have anticipated.

Time is a strange thing. The past 25 years seem to have flown by; yet, as I reflect on this important anniversary – the events that occurred and the thousands of people who gave a helping hand along the way, I realize what a great distance we have traveled and how much we have accomplished together.

In 1994, gasoline cost slightly more than $1 per gallon; a movie cost a little over $4; the average home price was less than $120,000 – and just about every time it rained untreated sewage flowed into Atlanta’s neighborhood streams leading to the Chattahoochee River, the drinking water supply for millions of people. Federal and state environmental agencies and local elected officials were well aware that Atlanta’s city’s sewer system was falling apart, sending high levels of bacteria into public waterways and creating a health threat, but they all looked the other way. Too expensive and disruptive to fix, they said. Not politically possible.

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper understood that Atlanta’s illegal sewer overflows had to be stopped – that this threat to our region’s environment and economy would be our first, and probably biggest, challenge. Left with no other option, CRK, downstream municipalities and property owners filed a lawsuit against the city in 1995 to resolve the long-standing problems. At the same time, we knew that Atlanta’s sewage pollution was only one of the many serious problems impacting the river throughout the watershed: dirty stormwater flowing from construction, industrial and agricultural sites; destruction of streamside buffers; malfunctioning municipal and industrial treatment plants; tons of trash; lower river flows from proposed dams and upstream water hoarding and general apathy.

Making our job even harder was the direct and indirect opposition of government agencies responsible for protecting our water resources, too often influenced by those whom they are charged with regulating. Vague policies and regulations needed to be clarified; money needed to be allocated so agencies could do their jobs; and citizens needed to be informed and activated.

Fast forward: today, the river is dramatically cleaner. I am now (happily) retired and for the past five years, CRK has been led by Juliet Cohen, executive director, and Jason Ulseth, riverkeeper – two exceptional individuals who have committed their lives to improving our Chattahoochee River and its watershed. Together, they and the CRK team have strengthened the organization and its reputation as one of the strongest river protection advocacy groups in the southeast. CRK is well-positioned to stay the course, as new threats emerge.

In honor of its 25th anniversary, the CRK team compiled a record of the organization’s most significant accomplishments – none of which could have been achieved without the vision and steadfast support of the Turner Foundation and its trustees, including the Seydel’s, and the many individuals who have served on CRK’s board.

Since 1994, thousands of donors have invested a total of $28 million in CRK’s mission to restore the Chattahoochee River system. That investment led to programs and actions that have resulted in at least $2.2 billion in measurable improvements to the river. In other words, for every $1 donated to CRK, there has been a benefit of $80 to the Chattahoochee and all who depend on this life-giving, natural resource. According to former Mayor Shirley Franklin, CRK’s successful lawsuit resulted in at least $18 billion in economic development that would not have been possible without the sewer system overhaul required by the consent decree that settled the litigation.

The numbers alone illustrate the fact that twenty-five years have passed: 25,000 water samples collected by volunteers, resulting in 500 investigations for bacterial contamination; 1,200 construction and industrial sites investigated to stop stormwater pollution; 130 miles of streambanks and 1,950 acres of land protected; 70,000 students educated aboard floating classrooms; 5,000 people with water-related problems assisted; two million pounds of trash removed and much more.

To celebrate its anniversary and recognize the next generation of river stewards, CRK is hosting a “Water Warriors Summit” at the Georgia Aquarium on Oct. 13-14 for students and recent graduates. Participants will learn from experts, exchange ideas and build campaigns to protect our waters; a major focus will be plastic pollution and single-use plastics. For more information, visit Chattahoochee.org./waterwarriors.

A 25th Anniversary Patron Dinner will be held on Oct. 24, also at the Georgia Aquarium where these youth-focused organizations will be honored: One More Generation, Hannah4Change, Captain Planet Foundation, Villa Rica High School and The Westminster schools. Details can be found at chattahoochee.org. I hope you’ll join me at the dinner!

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