Thirty years ago, country singer Alan Jackson released his hit single about muddy water, a lot of living, and a little loving on the Chattahoochee River near his hometown of Newnan—located on the southern (downstream) fringes of metro Atlanta. Way down yonder on his boyhood river, Jackson recalls learning how to swim and who he was on days “hotter than a hoochie coochie.”
The music video that accompanied this timeless summer classic—with Jackson water-skiing in torn jeans and a cowboy hat—won the Country Music Award for video of the year in 1993. If you’ve never seen it, the clip is worth a watch. The song’s upbeat tempo and images of youthful enthusiasm will put a smile on your face. As “Chattahoochee” co-writer Jim McBride said at the time: “People just associate with that song. With most people, there’s a river that they have memories about.”
The season for making new summer memories is now upon us. Where will you head? To the beach, your favorite river, or a lakeside cabin? Perhaps you’ll play with your children or grandchildren beside a neighborhood creek. Wherever you go to cool off on the hot days that are sure to come, I wish you clean, safe, and trash-free waters. Today, your favorite swimming and fishing holes are likely to be cleaner than they were when Jackson’s most successful song was released three decades ago.
Holding Polluters Accountable
Over the past 30 years—as journalists, photographers, and filmmakers produced stories about environmental threats—the general public took a closer look at the waterways in their hometowns: the streams in their backyards and the rivers and lakes that serve as playgrounds and drinking water supplies. Concerned about more harm to their communities and armed with new scientific data, the public demanded that clean water laws be enforced; they insisted that polluters be held accountable to protect people, wildlife, and property.
Environmental advocates became more numerous and effective in their strategies to achieve clean, swimmable waters, using legal actions when needed. With greater resources—thanks to volunteers and generous donors—substantial improvements have been made. Our rivers, lakes, streams, and beaches are cleaner and safer, although the specter of emerging contaminants, such as microplastics and “forever chemicals,” remains, as does the ubiquitous problem of trash.
Around the world, the “waterkeeper” movement (waterkeeper.org) began to proliferate in the 1990s. There are now seventy-five waterkeeper groups in the Southeast alone, including my former organization, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (CRK, chattahoochee.org), which will celebrate its own thirtieth anniversary next year. Alan Jackson’s song was a prelude, then the soundtrack, for CRK’s early years, when, joined by downstream communities and riverfront landowners, the organization successfully sued the city of Atlanta to stop its chronic sewage spills
After spending more than $2 billion to upgrade its crumbling sewer system, the city no longer regularly dumps untreated sewage into the river and its tributaries. With the help of tens of thousands of volunteers, more than 2.2 million pounds of trash have been pulled from the Chattahoochee and its watershed by CRK over the decades. Other Georgia waterways have experienced similar successes fostered by collaboration, monitoring, land protection, policy changes, and legal actions.
The Problem with Rain
Polluted storm runoff remains a big problem. Anything dumped or dropped on the ground or in a gutter can end up in the nearest body of water. Stormwater pollution results from materials, chemicals, and trash washed into the storm drains from streets, yards, rooftops, parking lots, construction sites, and industrial operations, e.g., chemical manufacturing, poultry processing, landfills, mining, and hazardous waste treatment.
When large, even small construction sites are graded without installing erosion control measures, muddy water flows off-site and downslope to the nearest stream every time it rains. The results include harm to aquatic plants and animals, clogged stream channels, toxic green-blue algae fed by excess nutrients, and higher bills for more expensive drinking water treatment.
This type of pollution is significant because—unlike the water that goes down a sink or toilet in your home—stormwater is untreated. It flows directly to a lake, river, or the ocean, unless it is slowed by trees, plants, and rain gardens that allow the water to soak into the ground. Dense urban areas, like Atlanta’s core with its sixteen-lane Downtown Connector (I-75/85), produce massive floods of stormwater.
Making matters worse, the increasing air temperatures of climate change bring more intense storms to the Southeast: more polluted runoff, more flooding, and more days that are hotter than a “hoochie coochie.”
Although the government, at all levels, is required to manage this pollution, agencies rarely have sufficient resources or political will to get the job done; environmental groups and others have had to step up and take some responsibility. Over the years, CRK has invested heavily and successfully in training, monitoring, policy-making, and enforcement programs to stop muddy and toxic stormwater from leaving construction sites and industrial sites, respectively.
Despite ongoing challenges, the news about today’s Chattahoochee is good. As the river slowly meanders past Alan Jackson’s hometown, the water is dramatically cleaner; one day, the time may even be right to drop “muddy” from the lyrics of his biggest hit.
Ways You Can Stop Stormwater Pollution
- Maintain your car or truck. Never dump anything into a storm drain. Recycle used oil, antifreeze, and other fluids. Wash your car at a commercial facility or on a lawn, not on a paved surface.
- Reduce your use of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Mulch lawn clippings. Plant trees. Replace some of your lawn with native, drought-resistant plants.
- Direct downspouts to vegetated areas, not a storm drain in the street.
- Have septic systems regularly inspected and pumped out when needed.
- Scoop pet poop and properly dispose of it.