Sally Bethea’s Moment led to a career of fighting for the Chattahoochee River and its tributaries
By Chris Schroder
Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Sally Bethea began her work with environmental conservancy groups in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until hearing Robert Kennedy Jr. make a stirring speech that she had a Moment that ignited her deep enthusiasm to focus her efforts on Atlanta’s waterway.
“I was looking for something that would get me involved in giving back and doing environmental advocacy in a more place-based and specific results sort of way,” Sally said.
In 1992, Sally was invited to the inauguration of then Mayor Frank Martin in Columbus, Georgia on the edge of the Chattahoochee River. During the inauguration ceremonies, Kennedy delivered a speech that provided a crystal clear answer for what Sally had been seeking.
Kennedy’s speech detailed the work of the nation’s first Riverkeeper that had been established for New York state’s Hudson River. He spoke eloquently about the trials and the triumphs of establishing the Riverkeeper for the community at large, Sally said. They had used the legal system, media outlets, and a wealth of other tools to accomplish their goals and were able to achieve meaningful results for the river.
“He spoke in a compelling and passionate way about how they protected that river,” she said. “I was so overwhelmed, I was writing notes on my hands, on napkins just to remember everything he said.
“I thought, this is the kind of work I want to do – I want to do it this way, with real results and real outcomes and not the type of incrementalist approach that many environmental groups 20 years ago were using,” Sally said.
The speech focused Sally’s attention on the Chattahoochee and its tributaries, including a creek in which she had played as a child growing up in Atlanta. As she began looking for ways to get involved, she had a fortuitous meeting just a year later.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Sally recalled of her meeting with Rutherford and Laura Turner Seydel in 1993. The couple had been supportive of many environmental efforts in the region and were looking to start the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. Their happenstance meeting proved that Sally’s “aha-Moment” – the way she described what she felt after Kennedy’s speech – was part of a larger purpose.
“I remembered Kennedy’s words – I was so incredibly lucky – and I moved forward with the Seydels,” she said.
The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper was founded in 1994 as an environmental advocacy group that would protect the drinking water source for 4 million Georgians – the Chattahoochee River Basin. It was the eleventh riverkeeper organization officially established in the nation. There are approximately 200 worldwide today.
For 18 years, the nonprofit was known as Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and focused on the upper half of the river down to West Point Lake. Last year, the organization expanded its influence, was rebranded as the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (CRK) and opened an office in LaGrange, Georgia to work more with groups and communities downstream on specific issues and programming.
Since its founding, CRK has focused its work on the tri-state water wars between Georgia, Alabama and Florida that affect the entire Chattahoochee River basin and its surrounding communities. CRK reports it has stopped 97 percent of sewer overflow volumes and facilitated legislative action on numerous occasions to achieve significant results.
In 1995, CRK, downstream local governments and citizens filed a lawsuit against the City of Atlanta for water quality violations from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that were polluting metro Atlanta streams and the Chattahoochee River. In 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) joined the legal action to demand an overhaul of the rest of the sewer system. Ultimately, Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell signed a Federal Consent Decree that called for solutions to be implemented according to strict deadlines. By 2014, 99% of the volume of sewer spills occurring more than a decade ago will have been stopped.
“If it wasn’t for this lawsuit that we filed with downstream communities to stop Atlanta from polluting the Chattahoochee, 18 billion dollars worth of development and investment in the city would not have been possible,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t gotten the plumbing right, if we hadn’t used the courts to protect the river and to protect businesses and our overall community.”
Known for its use of the court to accomplish environmental goals, Sally defended the method and explained the main goal of the CRK.
“The Riverkeeper is not just about filing lawsuits – we might do that once every few years,” she said. “It’s about getting the job done.
“The fact is, when you really have a problem you can’t deal with any other way, going to court and stepping in when government fails to do its job is something we, as environmental advocates, consider.”
Today, at 6,000 members strong, CRK does more than legislative work and law enforcement. Education is a major focus of the group. Through the Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center (LLAC), In the past 14 years, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper has taken thousands of children onto Lake Lanier with a floating classroom program that educates students and provides invaluable hands-on learning experiences about the river.
In addition to education and training programs, CRK heavily monitors the water quality of hundreds of miles of river and its tributaries, ensuring the quality of our region’s water resources.
“I’ve been working on and around these issues for what seems like two thirds of my life, but I found the right place for me with the Riverkeeper,” Sally said.
The Chattahoochee River’s health will continue to be threatened as metro Atlanta resumes its rapid growth following the recent recession. Although Sally may retire in the next few years from her role as executive director, her efforts and those of her supporters and volunteers will continue to protect economic stability for the millions of people served by the Chattahoochee River.
“We are doing this river keeping in a way that engages people and speaks truth to power because that’s what we have to do – and it’s what Robert Kennedy Jr. said almost more than 20 years ago.”
Next week in Moments: Larry Gellerstedt, CEO of Cousins Properties, on the Moment he helped two competing children’s hospitals merge into one.
Video by Mehran Moin. Research and writing assistance by Bailee Bowman of Schroder PR.
Don’t miss previous 2013 Moments: Jay Smith, Jennifer Johnson, David Geller, Cynthia Jones Parks, Lee Katz, Keegan Federal, Brandi Helvey, Alwyn Fredericks, George McKerrow, Wright Mitchell, Shawn Wilson, Bill Bolling, Tracey Jackson, Fran Tarkenton, Drey Mingo, Andy Cash, Fred Northup, Wendy Binns, Ann Curry, Bill Clarkson, Alicia Philipp, Dennis Creech, Meredith Leapley, Raymond King, Jerry Farber, Larry Gellerstedt, Sally Bethea, Ken Thrasher, Herb Nelson.
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