It’s sometimes called Atlanta’s “other river.”
South River begins underground near the state capitol and winds 63 miles through south DeKalb on its way into Lake Jackson in Butts County, where it joins the Yellow and Alcovy rivers to form the Ocmulgee River before eventually emptying into the Atlantic Ocean.
It is “the most important and visible natural resource in south DeKalb County,” said Jacqueline Echols, president of the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA).
“South River is not as big, but it can be just as important as the Chattahoochee,” its more popular neighboring river, Echols said.
While the Chattahoochee, as a designated National Recreation Area, attracts fisherman, kayakers and nature lovers, the polluted South River has warning signs from DeKalb County officials urging residents to stay out of the river.
“It has been degraded terribly, but that does not need to be a permanent condition,” Echols said.
The SRWA, formed 12 years ago, is now starting an initiative called South River 2020. In this effort, the alliance is seeking to improve the river’s water quality and recreational value, according to Doug Denton, vice president of the alliance.
In addition to increasing long-term support for the river, SRWA wants to raise awareness of the proposed consent decree between DeKalb County and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
In the proposed consent decree, the county has agreed to pay a $453,000 penalty for excessive sewage spills. Since 2006, there have been nearly 1,000 county sewer spills.
The county also agreed to implement a $600,000 stream cleanup project, focusing on debris removal from parts of the South River, South Fork Peachtree Creek and Snapfinger Creek.
Sewage spills in DeKalb County are not the only threats to the river. Combined sewer overflows into the river by the city of Atlanta are degrading the water quality of South River, Echols said.
The SRWA also wants “some definitive data about what pollutants are actually there,” Echols said. “We don’t know really what pollutants are there.”
Kevin Ferrell, an assistant bureau chief with the EPD’s watershed protection branch, said while no water quality standards have been violated in the South River, “it’s probably not a good idea” for people to fish and swim in the river.
“All kinds of things wash into it from the streets and it’s subject to sewer spills,” Ferrell said. “That pretty much goes for any urban stream.”
Echols said south DeKalb residents should not give up on the river.
“Folks have just been so comfortable with the notion that the South River is polluted,” Echols said. Some residents believe that “since the South River is an urban river, it’s polluted and will always be polluted.”
In a briefing to an EPA administrator, several Atlanta, DeKalb County and Rockdale County organizations stated that “writing off the South River means writing off the communities surrounding the river and no community deserves to be discarded.”
“The community and river are connected and the people who live along South River get the connection,” stated the briefing by the Metropolitan Atlanta Urban Watershed Institute, Miners Creek Civic Association, DeKalb County Soil and Water Conservation District, South DeKalb Neighborhoods Coalition, South Rockdale Civic Association and SRWA.
“With this connection made, restoration of the South River becomes a special kind of environmental amenity; by restoring the river, communities are restoring themselves,” the briefing stated.
SRWA members are aiming to get a Blueway designation for South River.
A proposal by the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Recreational Blueway Trails Initiative would focus on the development and protection of water trails across the country.
Although the Blueways project has not yet been approved by the federal government, some local municipalities around the country are already using the designation. In Georgia, officials have developed the Ocmulgee Blueway Project, consisting of 54 miles of water trail on the Ocmulgee River flowing through Bleckley, Houston, Twiggs and Pulaski counties.
“This would be recognition of what the South River means to south DeKalb,” Echols said.
With its beautiful shoals and runs, South River “can be a major economic engine in south DeKalb once it’s cleaned up,” Echols said.
The SRWA wants to see “people return to the river and have contact with the river,” Echols said. “Frolicking in the river. That’s what I want to see.”