An Ecological and Cultural Treasure
Despite the impression of a largely rural landscape, this region of Georgia is experiencing increased development pressure from population growth, water withdrawals, and wastewater discharges, as well as from climactic changes leading to sea level rise. These pressures are causing dramatic changes in water quality and quantity and threaten serious ecological decline and shifting wildlife and fisheries populations. Ogeechee Riverkeeper was found to reverse these threats and improve the watershed’s condition. Since 2005, we have amplified the voices of concerned citizens and strengthened their efforts to protect their waterways and communities. By raising awareness and aggressively responding to critical threats, we advocate for the Ogeechee River watershed, its people, and their way of life. The Ogeechee River has been treasured by humans for its pristine condition and ecological diversity for over 10,000 years. Its slow-moving black water provides wonderful opportunities for fishing, swimming, and paddling, while also supporting abundant estuaries, tidal creeks, and salt marshes. Intimate swamps and bottomland hardwoods converge into vibrant coastal marshes and historic rice canals where the Mighty Ogeechee meets the Atlantic Ocean in Ossabaw Sound. The 5,500 square mile Ogeechee River watershed makes southeast Georgia an ecological treasure for residents and visitors alike.
Threats to Our Waterways, Marshes, and Forests
Lax enforcement of water and air quality regulations, lack of accountability on the part of polluters, and irresponsible land disturbance can lead to measurable deterioration in our water quality through direct discharges, destruction of wetland connectivity and upland habitats, and non-point source pollution. Specifically, the Ogeechee River is on Georgia’s 303(d) impaired list for mercury pollution from coal-fired power plant emissions. In addition, ill-conceived commercial and residential development has destroyed critical wetland habitat and water recharge areas.
A Legacy of Protection
Ogeechee Riverkeeper was born out of a 2004-2005 merge between two other non-profit organizations working on clean water issues in Southeast Georgia: Canoochee Riverkeeper and Friends of the Ogeechee River. These previous organizations paved the way for environmental advocacy in Georgia and we owe a debt of gratitude for their bravery and courage.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper has led the way in championing for the Ogeechee River and its people using all available means. In 2006, we initiated an educational campaign to raise awareness of mercury pollution through grassroots efforts. We engaged local fishermen to collect fish for toxicity testing and partnered with the University of Georgia to collect hair samples to test for mercury levels. People are now conscious of their mercury levels in proportion to the amount of fish they eat. They know how mercury enters our water and can actively work to prevent new sources from exacerbating current levels.
In response to one of the largest fish kills in Georgia’s history, Ogeechee Riverkeeper actively addressed illegal pollution discharged into the river as well as the lack of environmental law enforcement by EPD. Concerned citizens lost trust in EPD, and looked to us for help. In July 2012, with the expertise of GreenLaw and Stack & Associates we filed a citizens’ lawsuit under the U.S. Clean Water Act against King America Finishing for over six years of clean water law violations. In 2014, Ogeechee Riverkeeper and King America Finishing reached a settlement which includes a stricter discharge permit for wastewater (which is now treated to a cleaner standard than ever before), extensive monitoring of both the wastewater and the river itself, and funds set aside for river-specific projects.
We partner with the Georgia Water Coalition, a group of water advocates from across the State to push Georgia’s legislators towards greater clean water protections. Alongside Representative Jon Burns (R-Newington), we led the effort to introduce and get passed HB 549, which established much-needed water emergency response procedures. This bill is a statutory mandate for emergency response, ensuring timely and appropriate EPD response, proper public notification, and coordination between state and local communities.
Building on our legacy fighting for clean water in Georgia, Ogeechee Riverkeeper continues to stand alongside local communities in this fight to ensure that our children have clean waterways, abundant wildlife and fisheries, and healthy communities for at least seven more generations.