Opinion - Save our rivers

We can achieve environmental justice by restoring Atlanta's rich waterways

The urban environment and people are inextricably linked. But it is sometimes hard to see the damage we cause. Urban areas are where most people live. But they are also where waterways are most endangered. Atlanta's urban streams should be valued for their natural beauty, recreational value, wildlife, ecosystems, and community aesthetic worth.

Stream restoration often takes place in less-populated areas. It rarely happens where most people live. That's partly because the perceived degraded nature of urban streams removes them from contention when public officials decide which creeks to restore. The urban setting places many stressors on streams and rivers that affect water quality. And the lower the water quality, the less likely that public officials will consider the waterway for restoration. It's up to the public to take action when regulators don't — or won't.

Such was the case in Intrenchment Creek in southeast Atlanta, which runs through Kirkwood. In 2005, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assessed an area of the creek located downstream of Atlanta's Custer Avenue Combined Sewer Overflow Facility. They found no fish. The cause: poor water quality. The absence of fish meant no help for Intrenchment Creek. Ten years later, the assessment has not been repeated. The absence of fish means that this creek and nearby communities have not been considered for improvement.

Another example is the contaminated headwaters of the South River located adjacent to the East Point Housing Authority, where approximately 1,000 residents live. The source of its issues dates back to the early 1900s when the area — collectively known as the "Tift Site" — was home to numerous textile mills. Waste made during the cotton production process was buried in onsite lagoons, contaminating the site. Over time, chemicals have leeched into the soil and groundwater in the area. Fifteen years ago, the Georgia Environmental Protection Agency added the South River's headwaters to the state's Hazardous Site Inventory. A variety of metals including copper, zinc, arsenic, silver, nickel, cadmium, and lead have been found in the soil and groundwater. To date, the site has not been remediated.

The South River Watershed Alliance, of which I am a part, five years ago began its work to restore the South River and raise awareness about the plight of its headwaters and tributaries. The effort is inspired by Dr. Sharon Moran, an environmental studies professor at the State University of New York, who observed that "urban streams are special and stream restorations are a special kind of environmental amenity." That's because these projects inspire people to address and overcome other social and political biases affecting their communities.

From the river's headwaters in East Point, just north of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, to its end in Jackson Lake in southeast Georgia, neighbors have come together to restore and protect the South River. SRWA is a diverse and inclusive organization focused on environmental education, raising community awareness in support of the river, and connecting individuals and communities to the river and each other. It's done so through a paddling series, river cane restoration, and river clean-ups. SRWA is also planning the South River Water Trail and spreading the river's story to help people better understand urban waterways and increase environmental advocacy.

Many citizens continue to look to regulatory agencies to safeguard the environment and communities. The very name of regulatory agencies convey the idea that the environment and communities are being protected. But that is not always the case. As William Sanjour, a former EPA regulations writer and author has noted, agency regulator workers are paid to do what they're told. In addition, the public's interest is not always as dedicated as the industry's.

That's why it's important to keep eyes on Atlanta's 2015 draft Clean Water permit, which holds the city accountable for the effective functioning of its combined sewer overflow system and achieving water quality standards. A revised permit is currently under consideration by EPA and EPD. The federal consent decree agreement that is supposed to eliminate DeKalb County's huge sanitary sewer overflow problem also deserves attention. It only requires that the county complete assessments, inspections, and reports. There is no specified yearly reduction requirement or timeline for eliminating the overflows. Based on the county's own data, the approximately $700 million upgrades ordered by the feds won't accomplish their task.

At stake if either of these regulatory actions falls short is not only cleaner water in the South River and its tributaries, but healthier communities. Urban streams crisscross Atlanta and DeKalb's densely populated landscape, flowing through neighborhoods, backyards, parks, and greenspaces. Improved water quality has a positive impact on the environment and people's quality of life.

Sustained community involvement and action is essential to the restoration of urban rivers and streams. The stories of restoring waters resonate with themes of recovery and redemption — a reminder that we can undo damage we have caused and see change. As such, stream restoration becomes a catalyst for revitalizing urban neighborhoods. The Atlanta Tapestry Community near Ormewood Park is seeing beavers, butterflies, and herons flock to its project along Stockade Creek where Atlanta's processed sewer water is released.

In urban areas, environmental protection personifies environmental justice. The environment that environmentalists seek to restore is the same one that community advocates seek to protect. It is one environment and we all share it. It's up to the residents and activists to take on this responsibility.

Jackie Echols is the South River Watershed Alliance board president.