Despite the impression of a largely rural landscape, this region of Georgia is experiencing increased pressures– of agribusiness, population growth, water withdrawals and wastewater discharges – which are forcing the rivers to undergo drastic changes in water quality and face serious ecological decline. Ogeechee Riverkeeper was founded to reverse these trends and improve the river basin’s condition. Since 2005, we have amplified the voices of concerned citizens and strengthened their efforts to protect their rivers and communities. By raising awareness and aggressively responding to critical issues, we are the advocate for the Ogeechee River basin and its people.People have cherished the Ogeechee River’s pristine quality for thousands of years. Its slow-moving black water provides wonderful opportunities for fishing, swimming and canoeing, while also supporting a diverse network of plants and animals. Intimate swamps and bottomland hardwoods diverge into vibrant coastal marshes where the Ogeechee meets the Atlantic Ocean, just south of Savannah. The 5,500 square mile Ogeechee River basin makes southeast Georgia an ecological treasure for residents and visitors alike.
Lax enforcement of environmental regulations, a lack of accountability on the part of polluters and liberal permitting has led to a measurable deterioration of our water resources. Specifically, the Ogeechee River is on Georgia’s 303(d) impaired list for mercury pollution from coal-fired power plant emissions and ill-conceived development has destroyed critical wetland habitat and water recharge areas.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper was born out of a 2004-2005 merge between two other non-profit organizations working on clean water issues in Southeast Georgia: Canoochee Riverkeeper and Friends of the Ogeechee River. These previous organizations paved the way for environmental advocacy in Georgia and we owe a debt of gratitude for their bravery and courage.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper leads the way in championing for the Ogeechee River and its people using all available means. In 2006, we initiated an educational campaign to raise awareness of mercury pollution through grassroots efforts. We engaged local fishermen to collect fish for toxicity testing and partnered with the University of Georgia to collect hair samples to test for mercury levels. People are now conscious of their mercury levels in proportion to the amount of fish they eat. They know how mercury enters our water and can actively work to prevent new sources from exacerbating current levels.
In response to one of the largest fish kills in Georgia’s history, Ogeechee Riverkeeper actively addressed illegal pollution discharged into the river as well as the lack of environmental law enforcement by EPD. Concerned citizens lost trust in EPD, and looked to us for help. In July 2012, with the expertise of GreenLaw and Stack & Associates, two environmental law firms, we filed a citizens’ lawsuit under the federal Clean Water Act against King America Finishing for over six years of clean water law violations. In 2014, Ogeechee Riverkeeper and King America Finishing reached a settlement which includes a stricter discharge permit for wastewater (which is now treated to a cleaner standard than ever before), extensive monitoring of both the wastewater and the river itself and funds set aside for river projects.
We are proud to partner with the Georgia Water Coalition, a group formed to push Georgia’s Legislators to ensure clean water and protection of our natural resources. Along with our friend Representative Jon Burns (R-Newington), we led the effort to introduce and get passed HB 549, which establishes much-needed water emergency response procedures. This bill is a statutory mandate for emergency response, ensuring timely and appropriate EPD response, proper public notification and coordination between state and local communities.
If Ogeechee Riverkeeper doesn’t take action, Georgia’s citizens will lose access to clean water for fishing, recreation and agriculture. Future generations won’t be able to enjoy our natural resources because they have been destroyed by over-development and pollution. It is of vital importance that we continue our good work.