South River Watershed Alliance

South River, Georgia

South River.

In 2021, the South River in Georgia was listed as #4 on the America’s Most Endangered Rivers® list. The designation came as a shock to long time resident and volunteer for the South River Watershed Alliance, Peter Dykstra, but also brought a sense of hope for the future. Now that more people are paying attention, this unique watershed may get more protection.

The South River is one of only two in Georgia that originate in Atlanta. It flows through two of the most populated areas in metropolitan Atlanta—the City of Atlanta and DeKalb County.

The South River flows southeastwardly for 60 miles from East Point to Jackson Lake where it meets the Alcovy and Yellow to become the Ocmulgee River. The South River watershed drains ~544 square miles of land from parts of seven different counties – Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Henry, Rockdale, Newton, and Butts Counties.

As Peter describes, this city-born river has had more than its fair share of challenges:

“The South River has its origins in small streams just south and west of downtown Atlanta. There, aging industrial parks, truck terminals, most of metro Atlanta’s biggest landfills, crowded freeways, and one of the world’s busiest airports all do their worst to give the river a troubled upbringing.”

DeKalb County sewage spill. DeKalb County, Georgia

Starting in 1961, the Snapfinger Water Pollution Control plant began operating on the river. Almost immediately residents began to complain of intolerable sewage odors which continued for years. In 1978 residents filed a lawsuit for ongoing sewage and pollution of the South River with no tangible result. In 1991 all 60 miles of the South River were declared extremely polluted by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

In 2000, the South River Watershed Alliance formed to restore the water quality and biodiversity of the watershed for the community and the wildlife. Meanwhile, from 2004 to 2009, Dekalb County was fined about $600,000 for hundreds of sewage spills resulting in tens of millions of gallons of pollution. 

A warning sign on the South River near DeKalb, Georgia. 

In 2010, three things happened to change the trajectory of the South River’s future. 

  • First, Dekalb County had funded and launched a $400K PATH project that made the river accessible. Residents started using it for recreation. This raised an outcry from those who knew the river was still polluted and raised awareness. The Georgia EPD issued a statement that the water was unsafe for recreation.
  • Second, the Environmental Protection Agency, Georgia EPD and DeKalb County entered into a consent decree to bring the county into compliance with the Clean Water Act and eliminate sewage spills.
  • Third, a long time SRWA volunteer and activist, Jacqueline (Jackie) Echols, wanted to take advantage of the unique opportunity of the consent decree and revitalize SRWA’s actions on clean water. She knew it was not an opportunity to be missed. With the blessing of the group’s leadership, she took the helm. 
On March 29, 2021, Dr. Jacqueline Echols, Board President of the South River Watershed Alliance, presented a webinar on Environmental Justice under 303(d) and TMDL programs and the Clean Water Act as a whole.

In what she calls a 10-year “wild ride”, Jackie, now the Executive Director of SRWA, has learned two very important things. 

The first involved the consent decree and its designation of priority vs. non-priority areas. Before June 2020, a lawyer looked at the consent decree and alerted Jackie to the fact that there was no stated deadline for South Dekalb County to repair the water system. And so a lawsuit was in the making, for the lack of EPA’s prosecution of violations and for omitting deadlines for certain areas. In the consent decree, there were “priority areas” with a deadline (which was missed) and non-priority areas, implying that compliance with the Clean Water Act was not necessary in these other areas. Here was the problem: these non-priority areas “make up more than two-thirds of the sewer system with over 1,800 miles of sewer pipes, including the entire navigable length of the South River in DeKalb County and the largest concentration of Black residents in the state. Not surprisingly, most of the sewage spilled from the sewer system is in non-priority areas.”

The South River, seen here at Panola Shoals, transports untreated sewage that leaks from DeKalb County’s sewerage system. A federal lawsuit seeks to halt the leaks. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Through SRWA’s work, the consent decree has now been extended and expanded by the EPA; there are 103 priority work projects (i.e., repeat spill locations) — 48 in Priority Areas and 55 in Non-Priority Areas. Projects are set to be completed in 7 years with most work completed in 2025. However, putting a deadline on eliminating all spills is not yet required. A lawsuit to compel DeKalb County to stop allowing raw sewage to spill into the South River is now pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta, on appeal from a September 2020 dismissal by U.S. District Court Judge Steven Grimberg.

The second thing that Jackie counts as a valuable lesson is understanding how important recreation was to government agencies in order to determine if a river was worth saving. And so in 2012, SRWA started getting people back on the river with summer canoe programs and group paddles. Being on the water makes people care.

A diverse group of river enthusiasts joined in South River Paddle’s 2019 excursion.

To engage the community even more, SRWA is also working to expand entry and exit points for canoes and kayaks. Good news came in 2020, when they received a $200,000 recreational grant to expand their labor of love, the South River Water Trail.

Another unique tool that SRWA uses on their website is the South River Check in process. People can record when they are using the river for walking, sightseeing, paddling, or anything at all. Being able to capture real time data for GA EPD and EPA to show what recreational use means and have the data to support that is crucial for their work. As Jackie has also learned and proven, you have to be relentless in your advocacy. She believes steadfastly, “If you improve the river, you improve the community.”

Jackie Echols, president of the South River Watershed Alliance, is working with the Nature Conservancy of Georgia to raise awareness and train community members to help improve the quality of water and life along the South River network. 

Written by Michele Gielis

Links

Forest for More Soundstages, The Wrap, by Jeremy Fuster, July 7, 2021

Hollywood Studios Face ESG Test in Atlanta over Proposed Forest Clearing, SWFI, July 7, 2021

Erosion could lead to improvements at Panola Shoals, The Champion Newspaper,June 29, 2021

South River Forest: A big green dream starts coming true, Saporta Report, by John Ruch, June 8, 2021

In Georgia, a bold comeback for a dirty river, Environmental Health News, by Peter Dykstra, May 30, 2021

Sale of film studio raises questions in DeKalb, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, by Tyler Estep, May 5, 2021

National spotlight shines on South River as example of environmental injustice. Saporta Report, by David Pendered, April 14, 2021

South River – American Rivers, April 2021

Residents: More time needed to study Atlanta’s sewer system permit renewal docs, The Neighbor, By Everett Catts, March 31, 2021

Environmental groups file lawsuit over DeKalb land swap, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, by Tyler Estep, February 16, 2021

Officials say new sewer deal would aid development in south DeKalb, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, By Tyler Estep, December 2, 2020

DeKalb County vows to stop sewer leaks by 2027 in plan awaiting public comment, Saporta Report, by David Pendered, October 25,2020

Georgia County to Pay $1M Fine Over Sewage Leaks to Buy Time for Repairs, Insurance Journal, October 23, 2020

South River Watershed Alliance asks U.S. Court of Appeals to help halt sewer spills, Saporta Report, by David Pendered, October 21, 2020

Environmentalists mull appeal after judge tosses sewage suit, Fox 5 Atlanta, AP, September 15, 2020

People on the Margins: South River Watershed Alliance, April 3, 2020 presentation (Youtube)

Amid heated political battles, fans of the South River paddle on, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, by J.D. Capelouto, December 29, 2019

Water Quality in South River – Root of the Problem, Saporta Report, By Guest Columnist Jacqueline Echols, Ph. D., board president, South River Watershed Alliance, April 21, 2019

New initiative looks to transform the future of DeKalb communities along the South River, Dekalb Neighbor, by Brent Barron, April 11, 2017

DeKalb Partners With South River Watershed Alliance for River Buffer Restoration Project, March 22, 2016

Contact
Jacqueline (Jackie) Echols

Website/social media
www.southriverga.org

Climate impacts
Water contamination
Air pollution
Flooding

Strategy
Nature-based solutions

501c3 tax deductible
Yes

Accepting donations
Yes – donate here.

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