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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Written by Michele Gielis