Stories By: Josh Brunner. Video By: Allie Davison.
It was the ride of a lifetime for that single soda can. The long, winding turns of the majestic river with the quick current propelling it along made a pleasant journey on that crisp fall day. Up ahead in the distance, the can saw a group of people, wading deep into the cold water, patiently waiting for his arrival. As the can got closer, it realized the ride was over. This group of people is known as the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers, and they dedicate their lives to preserving and cleaning up the length of the Chattahoochee River, which runs from North Georgia through parts of East Alabama and into Florida.
All great organizations are founded on a vision. A vision of change.
During the 1990s, the Atlanta area began to experience problems with the water coming in and through the city. With the 1996 Summer Olympics looming, Sally Bathea and another group of influential Atlanta citizens began to advocate for clean water.
In 1994, the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers were born.
This mission was simple: keep the river clean and the drinking water safe for those who drink it.
One of the most important aspects of this organization, however, is that it is not run by politicians but by everyday people who love the river and believe in keeping it beautiful.
Duncan Hughes, the director of the Headwaters Outreach, which is at the top of the river, believes that this is a very important characteristic of the organization.
“Chattahoochee Riverkeepers is a collaborator, a partner, a watchdog, an educator, an advocate, a policy-shaper, and a protector of clean water,” Hughes said. “Politics can hinder the ability of local and state environmental regulatory agencies by denying funding, staffing or political support. Politicians often serve many masters. Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s only ‘clients’ are the river and its watershed and subsequently the people and wildlife who depend on clean water to meet our many water-related need.”
According to Sally Bethea, the executive director of the Riverkeepers, the organization has seen significant growth over the last two decades.
“In 1994, we had one full-time employee and a budget of $50,000,” Bethea said. “Today, our staff is 11 full-time and two part-time with an annual budget of $1.5 million.”
With this continuing growth, the organization looks to expand its work throughout the region.
Being a Riverkeeper is more than just picking up a can or two floating down the river. Each individual, whether they are a full-time employee or a volunteer, have their own jobs.
“I am responsible for implementing all of our programs in the Headwaters, including education, advocacy, membership, conservation, monitoring, complaints and the fundraising necessary to accomplish these tasks,” Hughes said.
Henry Jacobs, the Middle Chattahoochee Outreach Manager, also performs similar tasks out of the LaGrange office.
“I get to a little bit of everything,” Jacobs said. “I spend at least one day a week doing a water monitoring. I go out to local creeks and the river and pull a sample of water and get the weekly trends and whether or not the creek is healthy. You also go to schools and local groups. It is really about being a resource about the river and its current state and history.”
Volunteers go on river cleanups, which involves picking up trash along the banks and in local creeks. People can also go paddling and learn about the river and its many resources.
Most importantly for the Riverkeepers, people are learning about the importance of keeping the river and the surrounding creeks clean.
Even though the ultimate goal is to keep the river clean, the organization believes that awareness is key to its success. Water quality issues in Atlanta caused anger from there to LaGrange, Jacobs said.
“A lot of people around here have a negative perception of the Chattahoochee River,” said. Jacobs. But through the group’s work, this perception is beginning to change. More people are beginning to come and enjoy the river and its resources.
Jimmy Stewart is one of these people who frequents the river often.
“It is a real place to find solace,” Stewart said. “When you are on the river, it is a total escape from everyday life.”
In order to preserve the joy that river brings, the Riverkeepers look to keep the community, especially the younger generations, informed and educated on safe practices regarding the river.
One way the group intends to do this is through a floating classroom on West Point Lake, which will be a new addition in 2015. This will provide first-hand experience learning conservation and river safety while actually on the water.
Jacobs said he believes that teaching the youth the importance of water is the best way to preserve the river. “It is really about getting the younger generations to understand the importance of clean water and taking care of the environment,” Jacobs said.
So while the river never remains constant and is always flowing, the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers will continue their work preserving the water and educating the community on the river’s importance for years to come.
“In the next decade, CRK will expand its programs throughout the river basin, helping people make connections and demanding accountability from everyone who uses the river system,” Bethea said. “Our goal: enough clean water for current and future generations.”
Henry Jacobs: Riverkeeper
As the sun rises over La Grange, Georgia, Henry Jacobs’s day is just getting started. Despite working in a small outpost office right at 35 S. Lafayette Square in the heart of the small, Georgia city of LaGrange, Jacob’s job is much more than your ordinary nine-to-five desk job. Jacobs is the Middle Chattahoochee Outreach Manager for the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers, an organization dedicated to cleaning and preserving the Chattahoochee River.
“This is what I would want to be doing right out of college,” Jacobs said. “When I go out and speak to schools or clubs, you just feel so passionate about the river.”
Jacobs attended LaGrange College, which is just down the road from his office. While in school he studied history, something you would not expect from someone who has devoted his life to ecology and water conservation.
Despite his degree, Jacobs interned with the Riverkeepers. When his boss at the time left for a new job, he found himself running the LaGrange office. Jacobs’ work requires him to get up close and personal with the water. He makes trips to river and small creeks in order to take water samples and work with river cleanup crews. With these samples, he tests the water for inconsistencies.
Jacobs also routinely talks to schools and other organizations about the importance of clean water and keeping the river clean.
“Through this work I have an excuse to go out and meet people that I would not have the chance to meet,” Jacobs said. “Making relationships is what I really enjoy the most.”
Sally Bethea, the executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers, said she believes that Jacobs has had a positive impact on the organization.
“Henry is a tremendous asset to the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers,” Bethea said. “He’s young, smart, creative and enthusiastic. He knows how to make connections with people of all ages and backgrounds, which is very important in conveying our message about river protection.”
Duncan Hughes, the Headwaters Outreach Director, said, “He’s a great guy, very personable and easy to like. He also has fantastic communication skills and commitment to our mission.”
Jacobs said his love for the people and the river drives him.
As he continues his work as a Riverkeeper, he always remembers what is truly important in life. “Being 23 years old, this job has helped me develop a sense of morals and what is right in the world,” Jacobs said. “I am very appreciative I get to do this work.”
Related Story: West Point Lake Floating Classroom