Riverkeepers keep at it

Published 9:30 am Saturday, June 1, 2024

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At Thursday’s noon hour meeting of the West Point Rotary Club, Henry Jacobs, the deputy director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, talked about the organization’s continuing mission to protect, advocate and be stewards of the Chattahoochee River including its lakes, tributaries and watershed. Founded 30 years ago by Sally Bethea, the organization remains committed to the goal of restoring and conserving the river’s ecological health for the people and wildlife that depend upon it.

Jacobs grew up in the Atlanta area and graduated from LaGrange College with a degree in history. His senior research project was on the topic of West Point Lake, a task that led to him getting a job with CRK some 11 years ago. He’s never regretted it. 

“I love what I do,” he said. “I have really enjoyed getting to know people who live in the communities near the Chattahoochee.”

Riverkeeper has seen some significant growth over the past three decades. It now has an office in the Oakfuskeee Conservation Center in Troup County’s Pyne Road Park. CRK has a staff of 18 full-time people plus loads of volunteers who handle such tasks as water monitoring along the river and its tributaries. 

Opened in December 2023, the center is named for a famed Native American trail that passed through Troup and Chambers County. Several historical markers are located in areas where the trail is believed to have passed. It crossed the Chattahoochee in an area between Pyre Road Park and Rocky Point. It was a connector path to Ocfuskenena (the original Burnt Village) and Ocfuscoochee Tallahassee. Ocfuskenena was located where Wehadkee Creek flowed into the river and Ocfuscoochee Tallahassee where Hardley Creek flows in.

The new conservation center is designed to minimize ecological impact and to preserve the local ecosystem. It plays host to numerous public and private events along with outdoor activities such as hiking, horseback riding, camping and mountain biking.

Originating at Chattahoochee Spring just off the Appalachian Trail, the river flows some 435 miles from the north Georgia mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. It heads in a southwesterly direction toward Alabama and turns back east at West Point, a factor that gave the 1828 village of Franklin a new name in 1832.

Water quality has always been a huge issue for CRK, and there’s always been a major focus on what the huge city of Atlanta means to this. Continuous downstream water monitoring by Riverkeeper and other organizations has been a factor in Atlanta having invested more than $2 billion over the last 30 years in overhauling its sewer system.

“I like to think of this as an investment into improving the water quality downstream,” Jacobs said.

The largest wastewater treatment plant in the state of Georgia (and one of the largest in the nation) is located on the river on Atlanta’s southwest side. It has a dozen clarifiers and needs to be run by an expert staff all the time. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been happening lately.

“We have learned that some recent personnel changes have taken place there recently,” Jacobs said. “Something has changed there in the last six months. There have been periods when raw sewage was being dumped in the river. Our tests have shown that there have been periods when too much bacteria was in the river south of Atlanta. A wastewater treatment plant is not easy to run. They have made some improvements but have been more in the form of putting on temporary band-aids. We want the river to be as clean as it can be. We haven’t been given all the answers we need on this. As for me, I will be swimming in the lake this summer. What has been going on for the last six months or so does not need to continue. I’ve been told it’s the worst situation we have had in 20 years.”

In a PowerPoint presentation, Jacobs displayed photos of the treatment plant that were taken from a drone. He also showed photos that were taken near West Point in 2015. At the point where Waterworks (or Oseligee) Creek flows into the river, there was a great deal of muddy water entering the Chattahoochee. A study of what was causing this proved that it was coming from the new solar farm in LaFayette. Several years ago, a 1,500-acre site just south of LaFayette was cleared to make room for a solar farm with 338,000 individual solar panels. It produces enough energy to power an estimated 20,000 homes.

Solar farm owner AL Solar A LLC was cited for violations of the Clean Water Act and received a $500,000 fine.

The muddy water situation has cleared up substantially since then.

Jacobs thanked the many volunteers who work with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “We have students from Point University and LaGrange College working with us in our water sampling,” he said. We welcome water samples being brought to our center. We can have it analyzed for you.

Jacobs displayed some photos taken by a drone over Langdale Dam. One of them had a clear aerial view of the place locals call the Frazier Hole.

A member of the club asked him what he thought about the historic dams along the river next to Valley being taken out. He said he was aware that many people in the Valley area didn’t like it but that Georgia Power was inclined to have it done. Right now it’s in the hands of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Club member Greg Duffey told Jacobs that an area south of Langdale Dam was a great place to fish for shoal bass and that some really big ones had been reeled in over the years from that spot on the river. He was concerned it would go away if the dams were removed.

“I think shoal bass will do well as long as there are still shoals,” Jacobs said.

One of Riverkeeper’s more popular offerings is its floating classrooms. Sixth graders throughout Troup County have taken it in over the years. “We are continuing our fundraising efforts to continue with programs like our floating classroom,” Jacobs said. “It’s good to get people out on the river. Individuals and corporate partners have been very helpful in us continuing these programs. We appreciate this kind of support.”