Darkness had fallen and Sally Bethea was running behind. The Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper had promised to meet Joe and Monica Cook at the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River, where they were starting their 542-mile journey down the river to the Gulf of Mexico. The headwaters are located several miles away from the nearest road in the Georgia mountains in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Now Bethea was fearlessly plunging forward down a forest trail in the dark, yelling their names, and listening for a response. In Atlanta, she had enthusiastically encouraged the Cooks on their quest and she wanted to support their dream of traveling the river's entire length by not only sponsoring their trip but also by giving them a hearty bon voyage at the start at Chattahoochee Gap. It was April Fools' Day, 1995. As the first executive director of the newly established river advocacy organization, Bethea must have thought the Cooks' ambition to travel the river was no more foolish than her mission to protect it.
In the Cooks' way were rapids, overhanging branches, dams, and 100 days of paddling and portage. Bethea was facing more daunting obstacles: pusillanimous politicians, predatory developers, apathetic government bureaucrats, and an indifferent public. But Bethea had some advantages. Laura Turner Seydel and Rutherford Seydel II of the Turner Foundation had put the protection of the river in their sights and they had chosen Bethea to lead the way. The founders had assembled an aggressive, can-do board that was spoiling for a fight. Local leaders downstream were tired of the river being treated like the city of Atlanta's toilet. And the conservation community of Georgia had become alarmed about the impact that hyper-developed metropolitan Atlanta was having on the river. On top of that, a "water war" had broken out among Georgia, Alabama, and Florida over who had rights to the precious resource. The media, which is sometimes slow to cover environmental issues, was starting to feature stories on river issues. A storm of attention was gathering about the river and maybe in the nick of time. Perhaps the Riverkeeper could do something about it.
Sally Bethea: "We have been so lucky. The stars were absolutely in alignment for this organization. The people who got involved, the issues .." her voice trails off, reflecting on the modest but exciting beginnings of the organization.
Jerry McCollum is executive director of the oldest and largest conservation organization in the state, the Georgia Wildlife Federation. McCollum says, "The Riverkeeper is one of the newest organizations in the state, but it was started to do specifically what it is doing. And it is doing it in my honest estimation beyond everybody's wildest dreams." McCollum pauses, then says something that might be unexpected from the leader of a Georgia conservation organization. "They have consistently been the best and in many ways the most effective conservation organization in our state in the last five years. I don't think anybody's doing any more effective conservation work anywhere in the state than Sally and the Riverkeeper organization. They have really taken the Chattahoochee River back from polluters, from developers, and Sally Bethea's leadership is due a lot of credit for that happening. Also, the Turner Foundation and the folks that are on that board are due a large amount of the credit for the effective work of the organization. Every one of them are award winners in my book and deserve more than they've gotten in terms of credit for it. And the battle's not over yet either, that's very obvious."
McCollum isn't alone in his praise for Bethea's work. Ogden Doremus formed the Izaac Walton League in 1950 and was a founding trustee of the Georgia Conservancy. Says Doremus: "I just think Sally is absolutely superb. She is a courageous woman who has put her career and her future on the line in order to better the quality of life from North Georgia through Atlanta to the Florida line. She's put her reputation on the line to protect the welfare of the community financially, biologically, and ecologically. Her contribution to the so-called water wars has been extraordinary. She has brought integrity to a place where integrity was in short supply. I don't want to butter her up, but damn it, she deserves it. When it comes to putting it on the line, Sally Bethea is the best."
Says John Sibley, head of the Georgia Conservancy: "I have known Sally Bethea for years and she is as good an environmentalist as they come." Tavia McCuean, of the Nature Conservancy of Georgia: "I think she's done a fabulous job. I admire her tenacity and effectiveness. She's created a consciousness about the river and what we need to do about the river as private citizens to really help protect the system that is the lifeblood of the community."
In the last six years, the Riverkeeper organization has gone from 1 employee, borrowed furniture, no members, and a $50,000 grant, to 10 employees, two offices, an annual budget in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and approximately 2,500 dues-paying members. More importantly, the organization has fulfilled its mission across a broad spectrum of fronts, such as preventing developers from releasing tons of sediment into the river, monitoring industries that discharge chemicals into the river, pressuring state officials to act on obvious Clean Water Act violations, and training citizens groups to monitor tributaries of the Chattahoochee. It forced the city of Atlanta to remove 568 tons of trash from urban streams, commit to purchasing $25-million worth of land to buffer runoff, pay the largest fine in the history of the Clean Water Act, and start fixing part of its dreadful sewage treatment system, called combined sewer outflows (CSOs). The legal precedent set on the CSOs is now having an impact on communities across the U.S. that face a similar problem. And the organization sparked a movement to raise funds to purchase land along the Chattahoochee River from Helen to Columbus to make a 180-mile greenway buffer.
Today, the Riverkeeper's success in battles over the Chattahoochee may seem obvious. But when Bethea was hired as director in March of 1994, it was not a foregone conclusion that, for example, the city of Atlanta would lose the Riverkeeper-spearheaded lawsuit and be forced to clean up its act. Or that she would be appointed to the Board of the Department of Natural Resources.
"At the outset, I had a lot of fear of failure," says Bethea. "I just wanted to get an organization up and running. I had no idea that we would move as quickly or be as big or respected or influential as we are. But the Turners dreamed that it could and knew it would happen. And they made it happen with their support and encouragement."
According to Rutherford Seydel, they were looking to make a difference on the environment, and the Chattahoochee River had a special appeal to them. Rutherford Seydel says he was first awakened to environmental issues when he joined the Ecology Club at Lovett High School, which backs up to the eastern bank of the Chattahoochee River within the Atlanta City limits. The club was run by a biology teacher, Carolyn Hatcher. Rutherford married Laura Turner, Ted Turner's daughter. In 1990, Ted Turner started the Turner Foundation with an emphasis on funding environmental causes and put his five children and Jane Fonda on the board of trustees. When Laura and Rutherford looked to make a lasting impact on their hometown, they looked to the river.
Says Bethea, "I think they both, especially Laura Turner coming up with Ted Turner as a dad, have been so focused on our natural world and the environment and the importance of protecting it that it's like breathing and sleeping. It's so ingrained in her psyche. And Rutherford has a similar feeling that may have come later in life. They are so intellectually and emotionally charged with environmental issues across the board and they felt that this river, which is so close to where they grew up and it sustained them and it was in their backyard, they just thought they could do something about it."
The Turners had heard about a new kind of conservation organization, called the Riverkeeper, that focused on protecting an ecosystem, in this case the Hudson River. The Hudson Riverkeeper had waged successful battles in cleaning up the Hudson River and attracted a lot of media attention with Bobby Kennedy Jr. as its attorney. Today, the Riverkeeper concept has been so popular that there are now about three dozen official keeper programs in the country that protect other water bodies including bays, sounds, inlets, and channels.
In early 1993, the Turners approached Carolyn Hatcher, who was director of the Georgia Conservancy, with the idea of starting a Riverkeeper organization for the Chattahoochee. What should this new organization look like? What should its goals be? What should its geographic focus be? Hatcher asked Bethea, who as Conservancy staff worked on water issues, to help the Turners put the organization together.
Says Bethea, "We kind of thought we knew where the funding might come from initially. So how should we get it together? It all jelled in 1993 when the Turner Foundation gave a $50,000 grant to put the organization together and Chuck Rabolli did a strategic plan. I decided after a great deal of trepidation and concern to throw my hat in the ring and try to get the job to be director."
Her eyes widen. "I was scared to death but I thought, I'm in my early 40s, this is an amazing opportunity, when would I get something like this again so why not go for it? So with a lot of fear of failing, which I often think propels you to do a lot more, I officially started in March of 1994 in donated office space with a donated canoe with donated furniture and $50,000 in the bank and the mission to go forth and protect the Chattahoochee River, its tributaries and watershed. Yikes!"
Rutherford Seydel is very pleased with Bethea's tenure as Riverkeeper. "Without Sally, we wouldn't be where we are. Her energy, passion, vibrancy, clearly are second to none and have made a difference. You are only as good as your people who do the work. Sally does the work. And all we do is try to help her. Give her a little guidance but mostly rubber stamp her good work and the work of the staff. And surround ourselves with a good board."
While the founders give credit to Bethea, she points to the Seydels.
"When you have them behind you, it is amazing, not just the financial support that you have access to, but the vision, the energy, the prodding, the support, the constant involvement they individually and as a foundation have. Laura and Rutherford, they are the cofounders of the organization and I'm simply the founding director. They had the vision, the push."
She adds, "For example, Laura said, we've got to start at the headwaters. Six years ago, I thought, my God, that's so far away, where is that? Someone else said, we got to go all the way down to West Point. I thought, Jeez, that is a long way. I was just thinking about this little stretch that I'm familiar with from Buford to Peachtree Creek. But it's so obvious that you have to deal with the whole watershed."
As the scope of the challenge dawned on her, it was not to be the only time she felt in over her head. Before going after polluters and insensitive developers, she needed to know every bend, rapid, and riffle in the river if she was charged with the responsibility of protecting it.
"By the fall of 1994, our board was raring to go," says Bethea. "Who is our first polluter? Who are we going to take on? It was frustrating to me, because I felt like I knew more than a lot of people about this river system but I still didn't know that much about what were the most significant issues. I thought we needed to take a look at the whole upper river basin, all 3,600 square miles, and find out who has permits to discharge where, who are the bad actors, who are the chronic violators, and have a systemic process, to prioritize, instead of just reacting. We certainly knew the city of Atlanta was at the top of the list. So, I really felt we needed the credibility so we would win our first battles. Do our homework."
Bethea started spending time on the river, which is a key component to the Riverkeeper concept. "It's so simple and compelling and yet it's so clearly articulated," says Bethea. "You've got one person who's the keeper, and it is the job of that keeper and those attached to him or her, to physically get out on that water body, monitor it, know it like the back of your hand, and do everything that you can to protect it from an education, advocacy, research, communication, litigation standpoint."
Bethea exudes warmth and energy. Back in her office, as she talks she absentmindedly-as if by habit-works her bare feet out of her shoes and lifts them up and curls her lean, five-foot-seven-inch frame into her chair, as if she's telling a story around a campfire on the beach. Her enthusiasm and broad smile make her attractive without the expensive clothes and makeup one typically finds on an Atlanta businesswoman who runs a staff of 10. She looks the part of Earth Mother, River Protector. If she once felt overwhelmed, her natural confidence has certainly carried the day.
Alice Champagne, a water protection specialist who was the second employee of the organization, remembers a time when Bethea was literally in over her head when a boat capsized in the Chattahoochee River, but it didn't stop her from her mission:
"Early on in Riverkeeper's history, I don't think we had a boat," says Champagne. "A fisherman was very helpful to us. He would call us and say if you ever need to go out on the river, call me. We would call him really often. Back then, Sally's goal was to really know this river. To get on it, know all about it, how it felt, where was this, where was that, what it looked like. So she would go out quite often.
"We had a suspicion of this landfill leaching and leaking into the river because there was a pipe coming off it and we were suspicious that it was polluting the river. Sally said, 'I've got to get a sample of that!' So we got a couple of milk jugs, got in the boat, and went to get a sample. We filled them up and we were coming back up the river and went over a huge riffle and waves, and the next thing you know, we're in the water and the boat is going downstream.
"It was March and it was sooo cold! I had my life jacket on, and Sally had her jacket on but it was open. We started taking in water and before you knew it, we were in the water. Well, Sally had a hold of that water sample, and I heard her gasp when she went in. But she held that sample above the water and did not let go of it.
"I grabbed her life jacket, pulled her onto the shore of this little island, and God forbid she ever let go of that sample! Sally is notorious for her cell phone. The cell phone was in a watertight bag. So we're standing on the side of this bank, and she cries, 'my cell phone!' The fisherman had grabbed it. We get it out and call down to Georgia Power, and say, you've got to save us, we're stranded! We're soaking wet, we're freezing, we've got to be rescued. Georgia Power came up and rescued us. The fisherman was embarrassed. The sample didn't lead to anything. And to this day I tell her, you've got to wear your life jacket properly!"
It takes more than a boat and a jug full of polluted water to be a competent riverkeeper. To be effective, it helps to understand the arcane jargon of zoning, planning, real estate law, and environmental law. Says McCollum: "When government officials first met her-they don't do it anymore-they assumed she was just one more lady in tennis shoes coming in there to spew emotion around. Sally Bethea is an emotional person, but she doesn't spew emotion in her conservation work. She is a technocrat that puts the engineers and other technocrats in other state and federal agencies to shame. She has as much technical ability as anybody I know working in any technical program in state or federal government. And that's one of the reasons she's effective is that she has the emotion of a citizen activist but she has the information base of technical program people. So there isn't any pulling the wool over her eyes. She's alarming to agency personnel because she knows more about their programs than they do."
Like a river winding inevitably to the sea, each bend and turn in Bethea's life seemed to prepare her to become the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. Born in Richmond, Virginia, Bethea's family moved to Atlanta in the mid 50s when she was four years old. Her father, who sold advertising for CBS radio, purchased a ranch house on North Stratford Road in Buckhead that had two small tributary streams of Nancy Creek winding through the property. Today, the small streams and her old neighborhood are gone, obliterated by Georgia 400, a development her family and neighborhood activists unsuccessfully fought.
After graduating from North Fulton High School in 1969, she enrolled at Furman University then transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she earned her B.A. in Sociology in 1973. "Someone said that all my life I'd always been looking for a cause," says Bethea. "I guess initially it was social issues then later environmental issues."
She took a course in Philadelphia to become a real estate paralegal. Then came back to Atlanta and worked from 1974 to 1978 at what now is Alston and Bird as a real estate paralegal. Although her law firm represented real estate developers, she assisted an attorney in the fight to save the Atlanta Fox Theater from the wrecking ball.
To gain more expertise, she started taking courses at Georgia Tech in land use issues. In 1978, she received a state Regents Opportunity Scholarship. "It was one of the lucky things that has happened in my life," she says. "I got a full scholarship to go to Georgia Tech in city planning and specialize in environmental planning. It was enough of a scholarship-$10,000-that I was able to go full time and didn't have to work."
As part of her education, she had to take an internship. In 1978 under President Jimmy Carter, the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area was established. In 1979, her internship was with the National Park Service working on the general management plan of the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area. "When I look back, it sometimes appears that I didn't know where I was going or what I was doing, but now I see something of a natural progression," says Bethea laughing. "At the time, I thought, what am I going to do when I grow up?"
Bethea married in June 1980 and got a job working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "That job gave me a great view of water programs and an excellent background for what I do today." In 1981, she had her first son. In 1984, she reluctantly resigned from the EPA to "have another baby and to pursue family and personal matters." By 1987, Bethea was anxious to get back to work on environmental causes. She volunteered at the Georgia Conservancy and served as a trustee from 1988 to 1990. She was spending so much time working on Conservancy projects, she made a pitch and became a member of the staff from 1990 to 1994. At the Georgia Conservancy, she worked on wetlands issues and regional reservoir projects. "I was given a lot of opportunities," she says. When the Seydels approached the Conservancy looking for assistance in establishing the new Riverkeeper program, Bethea was assigned to help them and eventually hired as founding director. "I never could have dreamed that I would be paid to do something I absolutely love," she says widening her eyes. "It's just amazing to me. Because of that, of course, I never leave it. It's fairly obsessive in my life."
In July of 1994, she received a call from a member that a gas tank near the headwaters in Helen was leaking gasoline into the river. Tubers had complained to the state EPD that nauseating fumes were coming off the river. When the owner of a barbecue restaurant threw a match on the saturated riverbank, it started to burn.
Bethea visited the site and discovered that underground gas tanks were polluting the groundwater and leaching into the river. She took photos and wrote and called the Georgia EPD asking for action. She communicated with local activists, whipped up media attention, and investigated EPD files, learning that complaints had been filed but ignored by the state bureaucracy charged with protecting the state's environment.
Says Bethea: "We didn't have to take legal action but we did what we do well, which is we wrote letters, we talked with the state people, we talked to concerned locals, and we got the media interested in it. What had been yet another leaking underground storage tank on the back burner was moved to the front burner and ultimately they spent $750,000 out of a state trust fund to clean up that area. People were complaining but nothing was being done about it because there were a lot of these sites all over the state. I think it's a perfect example of the role the Riverkeeper serves, as the catalyst for citizen concern that puts pressure on government agencies which results in action."
The Chattahoochee River, listed in 1998 as one of the top 20 most endangered rivers by the Washington-based American Rivers organization, is where most of metropolitan Atlanta gets its drinking water. Most understand that the quality of the Chattahoochee River is affected by pollution that enters the stream such as toxic chemicals, human and animal wastes, phosphorous and nitrogen, and other contaminants. Less publicized threats to the river are unnatural inputs of sediments and fast-flowing warm water. Sediment chokes aquatic life and large pulses of warm water assault the quality of the river ecosystem. Sediments also accumulate toxins that then accumulate in river and lake beds.
These inputs come from either known origins, called point sources, i.e., a factory pipe releasing wastes, or from broad origins called nonpoint sources, i.e., runoff from all the suburban lawns drenched in pesticides and fertilizers in Fulton County, or topsoil released into steams when land is cleared for a new development.
Nonpoint-source pollution is more difficult to control than point-source pollution. For example, picture all the pavement in metropolitan Atlanta. Imagine all the cars and trucks driving and parking on this asphalt, with oil, gasoline, exhaust, grease, antifreeze, and transmission fluids collecting on the surface. Now it rains, and the water heats up on the pavement and washes into local streams and sewers and eventually into the Chattahoochee River. The total annual volume of oil and grease that runs into Atlanta waterways is comparable to that of a major oil spill.
And these inputs continue to grow as metro Atlanta consumes land at a record rate. Says Rutherford Seydel, "The biggest issue that that river is facing is a population that is doubling in size on a land base that is just being gobbled up. I've heard it described as the fastest growing settlement in the history of mankind. The river is the artery of Atlanta, but little creeks are the capillaries that feed the river, and development on all these little streams is negatively affecting the river."
In the 1960s, Ogden Doremus would fish the Chattahoochee River for trout and smallmouth bass. "I don't care how you look at the Chattahoochee River, it ain't nothing but a big creek. We have placed on the river the responsibility of an enormous metropolitan complex that it cannot stand. When you place development over Atlanta's drinking supply, then you are crazy. Every single little creek, every single little stream, every single little rivulet, or spring, that feeds the Chattahoochee River is what feeds Atlanta."
At least 55 industries have legal permits from the EPD to discharge wastes into the river, including lead, chromium, cadmium, cyanide, phenols, and benzene compounds. More than 100 local governments and private companies discharge treated sanitary waste. These point-source inputs are monitored by the EPD and allowed to discharge within EPD safe guidelines.
The No. 1 point-source polluter of the Chattahoochee River is the city of Atlanta. Whenever there is a heavy rain, the city's outdated and poorly designed sewer system releases insufficiently treated sewage into tributaries that flow into the river. These streams are so filthy and choked with bacteria, health officials have posted advisories telling people to stay away from the streams due to the threat of disease-causing organisms like giardia, hepatitis, and cyrtosporidiosis. Downstream, the river is so polluted that growing counties such as Douglas and Carroll cannot use the river as a drinking water source and have been forced to build reservoirs on tributaries. West Point Lake fishermen are warned to not eat their catch due to toxins accumulated in fish flesh. City leaders historically dealt with the problem by paying millions of dollars in EPA fines rather than fix the sewer system.
Says Rutherford Seydel, "The sad thing is, I live in the city of Atlanta, and I love Atlanta, but the lack of leadership on the issue of the Chattahoochee River is on the verge of criminal."
Fourteen months after the Riverkeeper opened its doors, says Bethea, "we sent our first shot over the bow at the city of Atlanta." Bethea contacted the city of Atlanta and told them of her concerns about the water treatment plants. When the city didn't respond, the Riverkeeper joined in a bipartisan effort with six downstream local governments, a chamber of commerce, a civic association, the Columbus Riverkeeper, and two individual landowners and filed suit in October 1995 in federal court for the city's long-standing violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
Says Bethea: "Although the city of Atlanta case was very complicated, taking on the city to some people was low-hanging fruit, because everybody had an ax to grind about the city."
In 1997, a federal judge found in favor of the Riverkeeper. Subsequently, over many months, the Riverkeeper organization along with state and federal agencies negotiated with the city of Atlanta and agreed upon a consent decree outlining an eight-year program to meet water quality standards at CSO discharges.
David Pope, of Carr, Tabb & Pope, is a board member who has served as outside counsel for the Riverkeeper organization since its founding and led the way against the city of Atlanta. Says Pope, "Number one, the Chattahoochee River provides the drinking water for most of metropolitan Atlanta and the worse the condition of the river, the more it costs to treat the water so it's a pocketbook issue for taxpayers. Number two, it's a health issue. It's ridiculous for individuals, businesses, and government agencies to not take the steps to protect that sort of a resource."
He said one of the results the Riverkeeper organization is "proudest of" is the agreement that creates a $25 million fund to buy greenspace along the river. "As a result of that fund, others (from government, private foundations) have come forward with money. It's my understanding now that there's $100 million from different sources to protect greenways along the river."
Despite the city's dragging its feet in complying with the federal court order, Pope doesn't criticize the entire administration: "There are individuals in the city government who if allowed to have their way with the appropriate budget and authority would do everything in their power to protect the river," he says. "However, as an entity, there has been an egregious lack of proper management by the city of the public works department which has led to the sorry state of affairs that the city has found itself in. It's very unclear to me that the management problem has been resolved."
Pope, who has represented plaintiffs in environmental cases for 22 years says "there would never be any need to file these citizens suits if these agencies vigorously enforced these environmental laws."
"I've learned that city, county, state, and to a lesser degree federal agencies do not always pursue their environmental protection with the vigor which they ought to," he adds. "Part of that lies in the philosophy of many governmental agencies, which is the more we can develop, the better off we are. And that's the prevailing mindset."
While the Riverkeeper has had her share of victories, there have been rocky times. For every success, there have been many discouraging setbacks. Says Bethea, "I go from elated to tears, to pulling my hair out, back to challenged, excited, it's just a roller coaster of feelings and emotions." She sees now that she needs to be worrying about who will take over the reins after she moves on to new challenges, before she burns out. And in her personal life, her marriage of 19 years ended last year.
The Riverkeeper is on its third general counsel, a key post that causes stress and uncertainty every time there's a personnel change. But she realizes it comes with the territory: "We can't pay the kind of salaries I wish we could, but I've got a really excellent staff. I know that this is a place where all of them are going to learn something, give something to us, and probably won't stay forever, so that's OK"
"My biggest challenge is to keep the staff from being burned out from taking on too many projects and learning to say no, particularly myself." But she has accomplished so much by saying yes. Last year, she was unable to say no to an appointment to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board. Says McCollum: "I was thrilled when Governor Barnes appointed her to the Board. I think she is in a tremendously important place right now thanks to the Governor for making environmental appointments like Sally Bethea and Pierre Howard. She has demonstrated such a high level of skill in the issues she's worked on that she's recognized for that."
One of her major frustrations is getting the public to apply an environmentalist ethic to themselves. "I think that people are talking about environmental protection certainly more than in the last decade, and it sounds real good, but when it gets down to it, if it's something that may restrict what they do on their property, there's still an attitude of don't screw with me. I'm going to do what I want to do with my piece of land.
"There's still not the kind of long-term vision and commitment to the overall public good. And that frustrates me to no end. People are talking, 'oh we got to do something with our air, with our water,' and it's always someone else's fault. But don't tell me not to put pesticides on my lawn. Don't tell me to keep 25 feet off my creek because I can put a gazebo and a deck out there and by God, I'm going to! And that's the real challenge you have going forward. Somehow we need to learn that we are all part of a community where each of us, everyone of us, needs to pull together and change the way things have been done in the past. It's not just the city of Atlanta's fault, it's not just the developer's fault for polluting the river. It's all of our faults."
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