By David Pendered
The Georgia River Network has issued three awards to recognize efforts to conserve Georgia’s waterways.
The non-profit organization may best be known for its annual Paddle Georgia event, which this year is covering 115 miles from Buford Dam to Franklin. The awards program, now in its 10th year, acknowledges the work it takes to protect the state’s waters and riverbanks.
This year’s awards were won by the Yellow River Water Trail group, in Porterdale; Ogeechee Riverkeeper Emily Markesteyn, in Savannah; and Satilla Riverkeeper Clay Montague, in Waverly. They were presented April 5 at an event at the Chattahoochee Nature Center, in Roswell.
Taken as a collection, the awards recognize efforts to:
- Promote recreational use of the Yellow River, which traverses four counties in metro Atlanta – Gwinnett, DeKalb, Rockdale, and Newton.
- Respond to the largest fish kill in Georgia’s history, along a 70-mile stretch of the Ogeechee River, by substances released by King America Finishing, a textile company in Screven County;
- Persistent volunteer work, including calling for the closure of a man-made cut that dates to Georgia’s timber era and alters the mixing of fresh and sea water in the marshes along the Satilla River.
Here are highlights of a statement the Georgia River Network released about the award winners:
Watershed Group of the Year: Yellow River Water Trail (Porterdale)
For their dedication to the Yellow River and for advocating for its health as well as for putting the Yellow River on the map as a recreational destination, YRWT was recognized as Watershed Group of the Year.
YRWT leaders Tonya Bechtler and the rest of the board have been instrumental in educating the community about using the river for recreation and enjoyment and ways in which people can get involved in restoration efforts so that it can be considered a healthy place for the communities that rely on it.
A few of their accomplishments include:
- Partnered with Newton Trails, Keep Covington Newton Beautiful, Newton Family Collaborative, Upper Ocmulgee River & Conservation Development and other non-profit groups to engage the communities in outdoor recreation to combat childhood and adult obesity;
- Held over 20 River cleanups, one of which received national attention;
- Created a website, established memberships and assisted with the development of the new Porterdale Canoe/Kayak Launch;
- Had ‘Resolutions of Support’ for the YRWT signed by Porterdale, Covington, and Newton County Water & Sewer Authority and property owners, Charles & Hilda Berry. Resolutions are pending in Rockdale County with plans to continue relationships in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties;
- Completed resurfacing of Mt. Tabor Bridge Access point in the Almon Community using recycled asphalt from recent road projects at no cost to taxpayers;
- Established a Yellow River Adopt-A-Stream testing team with monthly chemical testing in Newton County;
- Currently in the design phase of the Yellow River Water Trail Master Map.
River Conservationist of the Year: Emily Markesteyn, Ogeechee Riverkeeper (Savannah)
For her leadership and tireless dedication to protecting and restoring the Ogeechee River, Emily was recognized as River Conservationist of the Year.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper, Emily Markesteyn has led the Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization (ORK) though one of the toughest challenges any Georgia river group has had to face thus far. In May of 2011, Emily had only been working as ORK’s Executive Director for one month when King America Finishing, a textile plant on the Ogeechee River in Screven County, illegally dumped huge volumes of toxic substances into the Ogeechee River, causing the largest fish kill in Georgia history.
[King America Finishing signed a consent decree with Georgia acknowledging it failed to notify the state of a new flame retardant it was using, and an unauthorized discharge into the river that created a 70-mile kill zone that left 38,000 fish dead. The company agreed to pay $1.3 million for environmental benefits. The state authorized a new discharge permit in November 2013.]
The King America kill has kept ORK busy for years – partly because the communities surrounding the Ogeechee looked to their Riverkeeper to respond where their government did not. Right after the spill, ORK began responding to citizen calls, monitoring the waterways, and making sure other spills, like the King America spill, don’t happen again on the Ogeechee – or in the state of Georgia.
In 2012, Emily became interim riverkeeper and executive director, and has been the sole staff person through the organization’s lawsuit with King Finishing and the settlement this year, which negotiated upgrades to the King Finishing plant, far better discharge permits than were held before the fish kill, and a substantial beefing up of King Finishing monitoring and testing activities. In December of 2013, the ORK board voted Emily in as permanent Ogeechee riverkeeper and executive director of the organization.
In 2013, Emily worked with state Rep. Jon Burns (R-Newington), who introduced House Bill 549, Emergency Response to Pollution Spills, which passed during this year’s legislative session [and awaits action by Gov. Nathan Deal]. This bill will require EPD to maintain an emergency response program and help EPD keep the program staffed and funded. The bill requires appropriate and timely responses to emergencies that threaten the state’s waters and proper public notification, coordination and training between the state and local communities to protect the health of our families during emergencies.
Volunteer of the Year: Clay Montague, Satilla Riverkeeper (Waverly)
For his hard work, generous spirit and dedication to Georgia’s rivers, Clay Montague was was recognized as Volunteer of the Year.
Clay Montague is an Associate Professor Emeritus specializing in coastal systems ecology in the Center for Wetlands of the Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences at the University of Florida (UF). He retired from UF in 2010 and now lives in coastal Georgia, on the banks of the Satilla River estuary. He has been a volunteer scientific advisor for the Satilla Riverkeeper organization and member of that organization since 2005, and is still acting in that volunteer role today. He has worked professionally over the past 30+ years on environmental aspects of a variety of coastal issues and engineering projects with colleagues at the University of Florida.
In February 2012 he was asked to volunteer as interim Satilla riverkeeper which became a yearlong commitment. During that time, Clay maintained the face of the Satilla Riverkeeper in order to keep donations arriving, learned and executed its business, organized its annual Gala, sought resolutions to unfinished business, wrote new grant proposals, and carried out new grants.
Clay also nominated Noyes Cut in the Satilla River estuary for the Georgia Water Coalition’s 2012 Dirty Dozen Report, which resulted in a joint resolution of the Georgia Legislature to call for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to close Noyes Cut. Clay continues his involvement in Noyes Cut and other major issues of importance to the Satilla Riverkeeper, attends board meetings and staff training, travels to field sites, and freely provides advice when requested.