The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Monday, 27 November 2023 11:51

South River Watershed Alliance helps save an Atlanta river

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IMG_0020.jpgDr. Jacqueline Echols shows off rehabbed Panola Shoals, a rustic kayak launch site that will be the beginning of South River Water Trail.  Paige Penland/Hellbender Press

After years of activism, Atlanta’s South River is now a font of sustainability and fun

This article has been edited since its original publication.

ATLANTA — It has taken decades, but the once-polluted South River is now approved for fishing and recreation, and 40 navigable miles from Panola Shoals, about 30 minutes southeast of downtown Atlanta, to Lake Jackson, are being developed into the South River Water Trail for canoes and kayaks.

“This has always been an environmental justice issue,” said Dr. Jacqueline Echols, board president of the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA) and driving force behind the cleanup.

The 60-mile South River begins in the 80-percent Black city of East Point, then runs through other predominately Black, South Atlanta communities and into Arabia Mountain Natural Heritage Area, where the Flat Rock Archives “preserves rural African-American history in Georgia.”


The SRWA monitors 21 sites along the South River for silt and E.coli monthly, and Echols has been leading kayak trips since 2011. “Thousands of people from the surrounding communities have gone down the river with us,” says Echols. “They are supporting the Water Trail.”

You can too, by booking a float with SRWA next time you visit Atlanta.

“You don’t improve water quality without recreation,” Echols said. “When there’s recreation, you can use the Triennial review, a provision of the Clean Water Act, to petition EPD to raise water quality standards.” In 2021, Echols got 13 miles of South River approved for recreation, and in 2022 nominated another 27 miles.

“I fully expect that in 2025, the 40-mile stretch of river from Panola Shoals to Lake Jackson will have a recreation designation.”

Dr. Echols has gotten a lot of recognition for her work this year, including GACD 2023 Urban Conservationist of the Year and Garden & Gun’s 2023 Champion of Conservation. But she’s been fighting for the South River since 1997.

Local fisherman Brandon Beeks loves fishing South River so much that he’s ready to join the team.

Manufacturing consent 

“I grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, fishing on creeks,” Echols said. “I didn’t think about how clean our watershed was, or how important it was — it just was. I grew up knowing what a healthy stream looks like.”

When she arrived in Atlanta in the mid-1990s as a graduate student in public administration , South River had been used as a raw sewage overflow by the city of Atlanta for decades. So when the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper won the 1997 Atlanta Consent Decree, forcing the city to keep raw sewage out of their primary water source, conservationists wanted them to stop their combined sewer systems from polluting South River as well. Echols got involved.

Like many other cities, Atlanta’s oldest plumbing handles heavy rain by dumping raw sewage into public waterways. “They just polluted the heck out of South River,” Echols said. “The 1997 Consent Decree gave us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to force Atlanta to separate  the entire 18 miles of combined sewers using regulatory channels. And improve water quality forever.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreed that there were “environmental justice impacts, because the majority of sewage outfalls were in predominantly Black communities. But they said those impacts were justified.”

“I still have that letter,” Echols said.

“That’s when Department of Justice (DOJ) stepped in. They told Atlanta to separate half of the combined sewer system and remove the outfalls. In 1997 there were four discharge points. Today there is only one,” on Intrenchment Creek. “That one act raised water quality.”

The 2010 DeKalb County Consent Decree demanded further regulation of watershed quality. “But the EPA and DOJ are not as responsive to environmental justice issues,” Echols said. “They used to sit down with us and listen. Now they just ignore us.”

Regardless, Echols has managed to leverage the 2010 Consent Decree in other ways, resulting in a cleaner, more accessible South River. Groups like American Rivers and Georgia Conservation Voters stepped up to help, as have communities along the river.   

But her work stayed under the radar. Until last year.  

Police academy

One of South River’s largest tributaries, Intrenchment Creek, today bisects an 85-acre expanse of barren red red clay. The recent clearcut was once the wooded heart of 300-acre South River Forest, the largest contiguous greenspace in Atlanta once destined to be a public park.

It is now the construction site for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, as no one calls it. You may, however, have heard of “Cop City.” If completed, it will be the largest training center in the USA — three times the size and expense of those used by NYPD and LAPD.

“The media keeps saying the site is 85 acres,” Echols noted tersely. “But the land disturbance permit clearly shows 171 acres. And there’s an expansion clause.”

After a January 2023 shootout in South River Forest between activists and police left a protester dead and police officer wounded, the USGS shut down a water quality gauge due to “safety concerns.”

“Intrenchment Creek is the main outfall for Atlanta’s combined sewer system. Water quality testing is critical,” Echols said. The creek has been monitored by the USGS since the 1997 Consent Decree was implemented; it has had a permanent gauge since at least 2018.

“The real problem is that the sediment data did not agree with Atlanta’s assessment of Cop City’s impacts,” Echols said.

“It’s another environmental justice issue. This community doesn’t have political power, they don’t have economic power. By the time they found out about Cop City, it was a done deal.”

A river runs through it

Local fisherman Brandon Beeks, who comes to South River because he “loves the view,” overheard this interview. When we stopped recording, he turned to Echols. “If you need me to join the team, let me know.”

She has this effect on everyone, which is why so many communities along South River are pitching in to transform it into Atlanta’s newest outdoor recreation destination.

The city of Stonecrest is creating a huge new park along South River, also with a kayak launch. Rockdale is rehabbing  Panola Shoals and putting kayak launches in Everett Park .

“A Rockdale County official told me the launch is next to a swimming hole where families have been swimming for generations,” Echols said. “She was still worried about water quality. It’s fine, but we added it as a monthly test site. Now parents and children can cool off like their grandparents did, without worry.

“These municipalities recognize the economic importance of the river and what it could mean for sustainable development. As the environment goes, so goes the community.” Echols said with a smile. “When you improve the environment, you improve the community.”

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Last modified on Friday, 08 December 2023 15:25