How Sally Bethea cleaned up Atlanta's water

Longtime leader of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper on her time with environmental group

Sally Bethea, the founding executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, has one regret from a 20-year-career she spent restoring the Chattahoochee River: the one day she didn't bring her camera.

"The trees along the river's banks were covered with not dozens, not hundreds but thousands of used condoms," she says. "Like ornaments on a Christmas tree."

Over the course of her time with the organization, she's helped pull all sorts of dumped items from the vital waterway and fought for better environmental policy at the Gold Dome alongside fellow eco-advocates. Starting next year, she will step down and advise her trusted staffers as they take the helm.

When Bethea became the CRK's first leader in 1994, she says sewer overflows occurred more than 80 times each year. Rainwater from heavy storms overwhelmed the city's sanitation system and washed a torrent of tampons, condoms, toilet paper, and raw sewage down its drains. Each overflow would unleash a disgusting flood into the streams that lead to the Chattahoochee. And parts of some adjacent creeks contained so much garbage that it was possible to cross them without touching water.

Over the past two decades, Atlantans have increasingly rejected such garbage-festooned creeks and placed greater value on what Bethea called a "liquid lifeline." Not that doing so has been easy, she says.

"I think the public is more in tune today than 20 years ago, and in 10 years they will be more in tune with the river," says Bethea.

CRK is a member of Waterkeeper Alliance, which is headquartered in New York and lends the Riverkeeper name to environmental groups that meet its standards of sustainability and effectiveness. CRK's sister organizations watch over six other Georgia waterways.

In 1995 CRK sued the city over the condition of its sewers. Atlanta's out-of-date system funneled both rainwater and gray water into the same sewerage. As a result, heavy storms would overwhelm the system and cause overflows. Three years later, CRK had won the suit that forced the city to sign a consent decree promising to fix its sewers and pull all the trash from 37 miles of city streams. Two billion dollars later, the work of separating the sewers is almost done. The old garbage is gone, and nearby residents respond to new trash more seriously.

"I had no clue that the City of Atlanta lawsuit ... would take so much time, energy, emotional capital," says Bethea.

Though fighting City Hall takes energy, helping Georgians visualize, understand, and love the river has kept her drive going.

"It's not just a piece of water you drive over on Ga. 400 or I-75," says Bethea. "It's a also link from Helen all the way to the Apalachicola Bay... Along the way there are people who love this river, who need it and who use it and we've got to figure out how to do that together. It doesn't belong to anyone."

In January, Bethea will ease into the role of senior advisor. She plans to help set up a "floating classroom" on West Point Lake, the sibling to a similar facility on Lake Lanier. It's used to teach children, many of whom have never been on the water and don't know where their water comes from and where it goes.

"Seeing their faces, at first they're scared and then they're like, 'Wow!' says Bethea. "They're so excited to be on a boat out in nature."

CRK currently operates with a $1.5 million annual budget and approximately a dozen employees. The nonprofit relies on a large volunteer army, too. During the past year, more than 1,000 people have joined CRK cleanup days. A battalion of trained citizen-scientists helps to collect water samples on a weekly basis to add to CRK's growing data measuring the cleanliness of the city's water.

Next year, two of Bethea's lieutenants will continue to advocate for cleaner water across the city and state. Program Director Jason Ulseth will be Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, the lead advocate for the river. Attorney Juliet Cohen, who also helped Bethea wage legislative battles at the state Capitol, will take over the executive director portfolio.

During the next three to five years, Cohen says, CRK will attempt to "increase presence and programming in our satellite offices" in LaGrange and Gainesville. Ulseth will oversee a project to contact roughly 600 different industries in the watershed that CRK estimates are not in compliance with clean water laws.

After 20 years, Bethea says, CRK is a "voice for the river that is here to stay."