The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper organization was formed in 1994 to help protect the river. Photo by Erik Voss
The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper organization was formed in 1994 to help protect the river. Photo by Erik Voss

By Clare S. Richie

Twenty years ago, the Chattahoochee River was a contaminated eyesore.

Georgians counted on the river to provide drinking water for nearly 4 million residents, to carry away wastewater from more than 100 wastewater treatment plants, and for power generation. But protection of this workhorse was woefully inadequate. Government agencies were not enforcing environmental laws due to insufficient funding, staffing or political will.

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper set out to change that in 1994, when co-founders Laura Turner and Rutherford Seydel brought the Hudson Riverkeeper model to Georgia’s most beleaguered river. With a $50,000 grant and donated office space, Sally Bethea took the reins as founding executive director and the first “Riverkeeper” of the

The river has been reborn thanks to Bethea, the riverkeeper and its partners. The nonprofit now has a $1.5 million budget with a dozen staff, offices in Atlanta, Gainesville and LaGrange, and 7,000 members dedicated to defending water quality and quantity in the Chattahoochee River basin.

“It takes a lot of different approaches to clean up and protect the river,” Bethea said.

Looking back on the organization’s history, Bethea is most proud of the riverkeeper’s $2 billion legal victory against the city of Atlanta, robust river and stream monitoring, and education efforts.

In 1995, the riverkeeper filed a lawsuit against the city for failing to control the discharge of raw sewage into the river from combined sewer overflows. CRK won the case in 1997 and settled it in 1998. This led to an enforceable plan to overhaul the city’s entire sewage system. Today, the river and its tributaries are dramatically cleaner.

“It sent a message that somebody is watching and is willing to file lawsuits to enforce existing laws,” Bethea said.

That said, the riverkeeper prefers to resolve matters through communication and negotiated agreement, and is proud of its working relationships with business, industry, government and civic groups.

The organization is also the top monitoring group in the state with EPA-approved, quality-assured labs in all three office locations. Each week, volunteers at 70 monitoring stations throughout the basin collect samples that are analyzed at one of these labs. “We turn data into action, and have stopped dozens of sewer spills,” according to Bethea.

Monitoring efforts also includes cracking down on industrial polluters, which are not in compliance with the Federal Clean Water Act. The riverkeeper talks with and educates these companies first, seeking legal action only as a last resort.

In 2000, the riverkeeper developed a “floating classroom” on Lake Lanier – and which will expand to West Point Lake soon – to teach the next generation how to protect our rivers.

The Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center, a partnership between the riverkeeper and Elachee Nature Science Center, has taught 35,000 students so far. Aboard a 40-foot catamaran with a glass bottom viewing well, K-12 students have learned about water quality and ecology through hands-on

A 20th anniversary gala will be held on Oct. 14 and will also serve as a salute to Bethea, who is retiring at the end of this year. Starting in 2015, Jason Ulseth, who becomes the riverkeeper after seven years as technical programs director, and Juliet Cohen, who transitions to executive director after six years as general counsel, will carry on the legacy of one of strongest environmental organizations in the state.

“We’ll grow what Sally’s worked to build,” Ulseth said. “The river is cleaner than it’s been in decades, but a lot of work is still ahead.”

For more about the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and details on the 20th anniversary gala, visit