Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth, Trust for Public Land’s Walt Ray and the Chattahoochee National Park Conservancy’s Graham Dorian discussed the Chattahoochee River and its health and economic benefits. (Bob Pepalis)

A panel of experts on the Chattahoochee River and conservation discussed the river’s importance and plans to add more trails during the Sandy Springs Conservancy’s annual Thought Leaders Dinner on Sept. 27.

The panel members were Walt Ray, the Chattahoochee program director for the Trust for Public Land; Graham Dorian, president and board chair for the Chattahoochee National Park Conservancy; and Jason Ulseth, riverkeeper and executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

Before the panel discussion began, former Sandy Springs Conservancy Board Chair Steve Levetan received the Greenspace Champion Award from board member Terry Morris. Levetan said he was recruited by the organization’s founders to serve as the chair on a temporary basis. He then served as chair for 10 years.

Former Sandy Springs Conservancy Board Chair Steve Levetan receives the Greenspace Champion Award from board member Terry Morris. (Bob Pepalis)

Ray said that the Metropolitan River Act passed in 1973 that helped protect the river also prevents nonprofit organizations and cities from building trails within buffer zones, or even performing stream bank restoration. A measure in Congress that Rep. Lucy McBath is sponsoring would permit this work.

The Trust for Public Land developed plans shared in 2020 for 225 miles of additional greenway trails, 25 river crossings and 44 tributary trails to create more access points to the Chattahoochee River, Ray said. Nine cities and four counties along the river have been partners in working toward those goals.

“America has an epidemic of obesity, asthma, and diabetes. We are killing ourselves from inactivity as a population. Trails are a great way for people to get outside,” he said.

Sandy Springs has access points to the river such as the East Palisades Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA) and Morgan Falls Overlook Park, Dorian said, but what it lacks is awareness. Many residents’ only knowledge of the river is from driving over a bridge that crosses the river.

Ulseth referred to a Trust for Public Lands video shown during the event and said, “A lot of traditionally underserved minority communities don’t have the access that some of the North Fulton communities have had to the Chattahoochee River over the years.”

Ray said children from a poor Atlanta neighborhood had to visit the Chattahoochee Nature Center to interact with the river. They had to be bused 27 miles because they have no trails that access the river in their own community.

Dorian said access in Sandy Springs will increase from 13.1 miles of trails that are part of the national park to almost 20 miles. Across the entire park, it will increase from 66 miles to 99 miles.

Growth in the city’s trail system, called Springway, is seen at Morgan Falls Overlook Park, where a trail section is being constructed along the river.

Sandy Springs Conservancy Chairman Jack Misiura said that the organization has again pledged $30,000 to satisfy the private funding requirement for the city’s application for a $3 million Georgia Outward Outdoor Stewardship Grant to fund the next segment of that trail.

He said 3.5 million people visit the park annually. Ulseth said that 1.3 million of them “touch” the water, whether they are fishing, canoeing or swimming. But he said that presents a lot of liability risks, which require water quality monitoring.

The river normally is very clean, he said. The worst pollution is seen after heavy storms.

“It’s washing all the contaminants from our roads and our lawns, and our dog parks and it overwhelms sewer systems,” Ulseth said.

The Riverkeeper monitors more than 200 locations weekly and cooperates with the National Park Service with the BacteriALERT program. The monitoring revealed unusually high levels of E. coli bacteria in the Chattahoochee River over thte summer, which they traced to Fulton County’s Big Creek Water Reclamation Facility.

The Sandy Springs Conservancy Board gathered for the Thought Leaders Dinner, which was given the theme, “A Treasure that Connects Us.” (Bob Pepalis)

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.