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Friends of South River to show off its beauty, warts

Written By: Jennifer Ffrench - 04/13/12 - Cross Roads News

What a difference a couple of years make!

In the summer of 2010, families with small children frolicking in the nasty waters of the South River were chased away by news of the river’s high fecal coliform levels. Warning signs and a wire fence were erected on the banks of Panola Shoals and Highway 155 to bar the uninformed and the adventurous from using the river.

But on April 28, eight canoes loaded with more than a dozen river advocates, county and congressional officials, and members of the South River Watershed Alliance will take off from those same shoals for a 4.5-mile paddle down the river.

Jackie Echols, president of the South River Watershed Alliance, said the mission’s goal is to educate and to allow people to experience firsthand the river’s hidden beauty, its tranquillity, its high banks, cozy tree canopies, and beautiful rock outcroppings.

Echols said the South River has the potential to be a destination in South DeKalb but that it has an image problem.

“Degradation has led to river avoidance, and education and access are the keys to reversing this trend and securing a healthy future for South River,” she said. 

“Education and access will also put pressure on the DeKalb Department of Watershed Management to aggressively address the sanitary sewer overflow problem.”

The South River’s image problem goes back decades. The neglected river, which runs nearly 15 miles through southern DeKalb County, has been abused by both residents and the counties through which it runs.

Atlanta and DeKalb both release sewer overflows into the river, and it has long been a dumping ground for everything from plastic soda bottles to old automobile tires.

Even abandoned boats have been dumped on the river. Just two weeks ago, Richard Grove, a river advocate who has canoed the South River’s 58-plus mile-run to the Gulf of Mexico, pulled an abandoned boat from it.

Grove, who has retrieved hundreds of car and truck tires from the river with his bare hands, recruited a couple of friends to help retrieve the boat, which was partially submerged 1.1 miles downriver from Panola Shoals.

The river trip is part of the SRWA’s Beyond the Bridge project that will include two to three canoe outings for citizens to experience the river firsthand and to increase their connection to the river and a photographic series of the river to be displayed at venues throughout south DeKalb County.

The project also will create a user-friendly map of the river that will be distributed countywide.

Those making April’s 28 inaugural trip include Andy Phelan, congressional aide to U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson; Phil Delestrez, a naturalist from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources; photographer Bruce Morton; Jenny Hoffner from American Rivers; SRWA members Morris Sammons, Keith Parsons, Patrice Davis, Howard McDermott and Doug Denton; GreenLaw attorney David Deganian; Dave Butler from DeKalb County Public Works; Deborah Schneider from District 2 Commissioner Jeff Rader’s office; and Davis Fox from District 6 Commissioner Kathie Gannon’s office.

Echols said they had hoped the commissioners and CEO Burrell Ellis could have joined the trip, but it conflicts with the State County Commissioners meeting that is taking place in Savannah on the same day.

“Hopefully, their staff will take back the message,” Echols said, adding that she will invite them again for the summer and fall trips.

Beyond the Bridge is part of South River 2020, an eight-and-a-half-year initiative to build community connection and sustained community involvement for the South River.

The initiative unveiled in July 2011 includes building a water trail – a recreational and educational corridor of access points, boat launches, forests, parks, refuges, and other public amenities that will become economic stimulus and help protect resources important to the quality of life of local residents.

“Achieving the designation of water trail for South River will require the support of all stakeholders, but the support of DeKalb’s elected officials is particularly important,” Echols said. “This is an opportunity for the CEO and BOC to show their support for the river and communities that lie along its path.”

She adds that it also will enhance the greenspace purchases the county has made.

“What we have in south DeKalb County is greenspace with a river running through it, which moves the barometer of possibilities to a whole new level,” Echols said.

After the April 28 trip down the river, canoers will be treated to a picnic lunch at Everett Park, which is on the banks of the river at Klondike Road, before being shuttled back to their vehicles at Panola Shoals.

“The only way to get people interested in the river is to get them on the river,” Echols said. “The only way to appreciate it is to get on it.”

As it stands today, Echols said that the South River is not nearly as polluted as it used to be and that her group is seeking grants to begin monitoring the quality of the river’s water.

“Every grant application we do, we ask for money to monitor the river,” she said.

She said the SRWA would like to do regular water testing and post the information on its Web site so that members of the public who want to use the river can know the daily state of the river.

She said that fencing the river in 2010 was the best way to handle the situation then.

“We need to move forward now,” Echols said. “We need to work toward the improvements that we want to see.”

She that fecal chloroform is an issue in every urban river but it’s not enough to say the river is already polluted and do nothing.

“With that mentality, you feel that you don’t have to do anything to clean it up,” she said.

Echols said that people can have contact with the river if the water quality is within the range specified by the Environmental Protection Division.

Fecal chloroform is harmful to compromised immune systems and open sores, but it’s not deadly. In a canoe, there is limited contact with the water.

On April 28, Echols and other canoeists will take lots of hand sanitizers with them on the trip.

She said the only way to get the river cleaned up is to put pressure on DeKalb Watershed Management and to get voters who want to use the river fighting for it.

“You have to start somewhere,” she said. “We have to get folks on the river.”

For more information, contact Echols at or 404-285-3756.

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