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Chattahoochee Riverkeeper combats threats in water for over 25 years, one sample at a time
Chattahoochee River Keeper 1.jpg
Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is celebrating its 25-year anniversary. - photo by Scott Rogers

For more than 25 years, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper has worked as guardian of one of the most valuable resources on Earth — water.

Since becoming established in 1994, the nonprofit has implemented myriad initiatives, programs and other efforts to protect and preserve the Chattahoochee River, its lakes and watershed.

The nonprofit’s roots span across the entire Chattahoochee River Basin, starting above Lake Lanier in Helen and joined by the Flint and Apalachicola rivers all the way to Apalachicola, Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico.

“Everyone has a vested interested in clean water,” Hannah Warner, Gainesville’s headwaters office outreach coordinator said. “There’s not a single person in the world that can live without clean water. Even if you’re not in the Chattahoochee Watershed, you’re standing in a watershed regardless of where you are. You have to protect that resource.”

Planting the first seed grant

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper was born after Atlanta’s Turner Foundation provided a seed grant of $50,000 to the new nonprofit in 1994.

The organization was founded by Rutherford and Laura Seydel and started with an office in Atlanta.

Sally Bethea served for 20 years as executive director and riverkeeper overseeing the organization’s programs. Bethea retired in 2014 and becoming the nonprofit’s senior adviser.

Jason Ulseth now serves as the riverkeeper, and Juliet Cohen works as the executive director.

Starting as a small organization, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper grew from having only an office in Atlanta, to opening satellite offices in Gainesville and LaGrange.

Dale Caldwell, Gainesville’s headwaters director, said Chattahoochee Riverkeeper compiled a record of accomplishments, discovering that the organization’s efforts resulted in an expenditure of more than $2.1 billion by government agencies, developers, industries and landowners to restore the watershed.

“For every dollar that has been contributed in the last 25 years, there has been at least $75 worth of measurable benefits to the people, communities and wildlife in the Chattahoochee River Watershed,” Warner said.

Early in the nonprofit’s history, one of its notable initiatives involved the 1995 lawsuit against the City of Atlanta to correct its failing sewer and stormwater systems, which were dumping raw sewage into the river and streams flowing through neighborhoods.

The city overhauled its stormwater and sewer infrastructure.

“When we sued the city in 1995, the result was a consent decree that forced the city to spend $2 billion to address the issue,” Caldwell said.

Through examining the water quality data from the 1990s and comparing them to today, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper concludes the bacteria levels in the Chattahoochee downstream of Atlanta are 80 percent lower.

Programs impacting water quality

Caldwell, who has worked at the nonprofit’s office in Gainesville for more than three years, said a couple of the organization’s noteworthy programs include the Neighborhood Water Watch, Lake Lanier monitoring and industrial stormwater program.

Since 2010 he said the nonprofit has facilitated the watch program, which involves volunteers collecting samples weekly for the headwaters office to process in its laboratory. Warner said she tests for E.coli, turbidity, fluorometry and conductivity.

The volunteers give visual surveys, looking for any obvious signs of poor water quality like garbage, dead fish and spills.

He said the largest sources for E.coli include agricultural land, municipal infrastructure related to sewage and agricultural industries.

Caldwell said volunteers are trained to document problems through the Get the Dirt Out program, which is followed up by the organization to make sure the proper action is taken. Those who spot problems report them to the nonprofit’s hotline at 678-696-8866.

Monitoring of Lake Lanier is conducted by the nonprofit’s staff. Caldwell said they take their own boat out and collect samples at various points in the lake as a team. The samples are then sent to the University of Georgia for processing.

The industrial stormwater program deals with industries that have the potential to pollute waterways.

Permits are required through the Clean Water Act, which established a basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into U.S. waters.  

“There are a lot of industries and companies who are not in compliance,” Caldwell said. “Either they don’t know about the permit or they are neglecting to comply. What we do is investigate whether or not an industry has that permit, and if they do have it, and if they are in compliance with the permit.”

Caldwell said one of the headwaters staff’s biggest success stories entails the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in Gainesville.

Before the plant worked proactively with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, he said it was a huge influence in bacteria pollution around Flat Creek.

Since teaming up to improve stormwater runoff, Caldwell said the E.coli numbers have decreased significantly.

Starting with kids

One of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s largest efforts in reaching out to young minds, involves its floating classrooms on Lake Lanier and West Point Lake.

Caldwell said the Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center is regulated in partnership with Elachee Nature Science Center.

This learning center takes the form of a 40-foot catamaran, which includes a glass bottom and holds up to 49 passengers.

Students implement water-quality testing, hear about Lake Lanier’s history, identify freshwater wildlife and learn about ways to protect their watershed.

In 2018, 8,548 students and adults visited the floating classrooms on Lake Lanier or West Point Lake.

“We conduct lessons for all ages,” Caldwell said. “That’s why the floating classroom is so important because we’re instilling those values and encouraging good stewardship at an early age.”

Caldwell said the headwaters office is always available to give presentations in the community, and welcomes people to call upon them.

Warner said unfortunately for many adults, they don’t value their water resource until it’s threatened, or until they become personally impacted.

That’s when nonprofit’s hotline comes into play.

Day-to-day guardians

Almost every day Caldwell said he investigatives an issue that has been put on his radar by someone in the community.

Caldwell said two main threats to the watershed include sedimentation and nutrient pollution.

He makes sure construction sights and new developments are properly managing their stormwater to prevent degradation to creeks.

One of the challenges of his job involves educating people on the value of their water source.

“A lot of people take plentiful and clean water for granted,” Caldwell said. “And don’t understand that the reason why we have plentiful and clean water is because of a lot of moving parts working to ensure that that happens.”

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper drives the importance of protecting the watershed through implementing programs, accumulating volunteers, speaking at schools and other forms of community engagement.

Warner spends most of her days working on fundraising and community outreach, which can take the form of searching for grant opportunities, coordinating events for the nonprofit or leading hikes to the area’s headwaters.

“It’s just rewarding,” she said. “ I’m not grinding away for a huge corporation that’s either having a negative impact or not having an impact at all, I feel like I’m working towards the greater good.”

Engaging the community

From lake and river cleanups to film festivals, the nonprofit finds ways to engage the community and promote its environmental efforts.

For its ninth year, Sweep the Hooch will take place Saturday, April 6, at more than 40 locations throughout the 100 miles of river and tributary along the Chattahoochee River watershed.

People will walk along the shores, wade in shallow water areas and paddle with canoes and kayaks to pick up trash.

Warner said Sweep the Hooch is the nonprofit’s largest volunteer event of the year.

In 2018, 32 tons of trash were removed from the watershed from the effort of 1,159 volunteers.

For the nonprofit’s 25th anniversary, it has launched a Relay Down the Hooch. The relay begins from the Chattahoochee’s source in the North Georgia mountains and ends at the Jim Woodruff Dam on the Florida border.  

“It’s an Olympic style torch relay, but instead of passing a torch, we’re passing a paddle,” Warner said.

The year-long project aims to engage more than 25 partner organizations, outfitters, advocates and others around the watershed. The first part of the relay began on March 9.

Another upcoming event is the Wild and Scenic Film Festival on Saturday, May 11, at the Brenau Downtown Center in Gainesville.This will feature an environmental expo and a collection of films that convey the challenges facing the planet, people’s work to protect the planet and its natural beauty.

The organization recently started its Clean Lake Lanier campaign, which aims to increase the amount of work the staff implements at the lake, but also growing an awareness of how to improve the state of the water.

The nonprofit has taken the first steps in this campaign through adding more monitoring sites at the lake and bringing the Neighborhood Water Watch to the location during the summer.  

How the nonprofit stays afloat

Warner said Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s funding depends on a variety of sources including foundations, individuals, corporations and government.

The nonprofit receives guidance from its Board of Directors, which she said is composed of people with “incredibly unique opinions and expertise.”

“We have a very diverse group on our Board of Directors made up of Republicans and Democrats, and to me that speaks to the value and importance of the work to support our actions,” Caldwell said.Warner said Chattahoochee Riverkeeper also couldn’t stay afloat without the help of its volunteers. She invites people to take ownership of protecting a valuable resource and consider volunteering at the nonprofit.

In order to sustain the organization’s presence and efforts, Caldwell said the nonprofit needs the community’s help.

“You cannot live without clean water and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper cannot live without you,” Warner said. “We need your support. Become a member, make a donation today.”

For more information about Chattachoochee Riverkeeper or to make a donation to the nonprofit, visit chattahoochee.org or call the headwaters office at 678-696-8866.

 Its local office is located at 104 Washington St. SE just off the Gainesville square.

Story by Kelsey Richardson, DCN Regional Staff.