A few weeks ago after a heavy rain, I took a walk with some human and canine friends along the Rockdale River Trail. The South River was rain-swollen, with way too much rushing water to let the dogs in for their usual swim. But, there was another reason to keep the dogs out: The earthy, welcome aroma from the river was replaced by the stench of sewage.
There are stretches of the South River in Rockdale that are downright beautiful, and they’ve been made easier to reach and appreciate by the network of trails – funded by local, state, federal and private grants. Sadly, the beauty only gets you so far. The South River is the last place where metro Atlanta’s sewage still runs free.
Public outcry over the years has helped make the river cleaner, but the job is a long way from done. Atlanta, where the South River begins, invested heavily in cleanup and treatment facilities, but in some neighborhoods, an antiquated sewer system still dumps raw sewage into the creeks that empty into the South River. DeKalb County has made progress, but not nearly enough. DeKalb signed a consent decree with the federal EPA and Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division in 2010, but street runoff and trash swept into the river by heavy rains can make the South River an eyesore instead of a treasure. Together, the trash, sewage, oil and grease leave their mark, and their smell, on DeKalb, Rockdale, Henry and Newton counties all the way to Lake Jackson.
Some citizens groups have led the fight to make this gem of a river an asset to our community. The South Rockdale Civic Association played a heroic role years ago, opposing a rock quarry project that instead became a park and part of the trail system. But SRCA folded last year, a victim of dwindling participation and an effort to turn the group into an ideologically-driven political organization rather than a community asset. SRCA also helped turn a riverside auto junkyard alongside Highway 138 into a trailhead and mini-park.
Leading the way today is the South River Watershed Alliance (southriverga.org). SRWA has been a community-based gadfly, pressuring DeKalb to clean up its act, and clean up our river. They also hold river-based events: A cleanup on Saturday, April 26, and a canoe outing on May 17, where you can run the river from the old junkyard by Hwy. 138 to Oglesby Bridge Road.
SRWA is well worth supporting, and participating in. So is the group working to keep the Yellow River clean through Rockdale and Newton Counties. Their site is yellowriverwatertrail.org.
I’ve stood alongside the South River at Albert Shoals – a beautiful set of rapids and a small waterfall just off the trail near Daniels Bridge Road – and seen kingfishers, blue herons, heard spring peepers, barred owls and the soothing sound of rushing water. Only two things separate this spot, a few miles from my home, from being miles out in the country: There’s a lot of commotion overhead, headed to Hartsfield Airport; and a lot of graffiti, cigarette butts, beer bottles and assorted debris on the ground. We can’t do much about the airplanes, but we can do plenty about the garbage on the ground. It’s Rockdale’s own negative contribution to the river.
We have assets here whose beauty shines through the gunk and litter we dump into them. With a little more action, and a little more civic pride, the gunk and litter can be conquered, and all that’s left is the beauty to appreciate, or paddle through, or walk along. Or maybe some day, even swim in.
Take a stroll along the river. Help with the cleanup efforts. Tell your elected officials to make Atlanta and DeKalb finish their cleanup. Encourage law enforcement to be assertive when the river becomes a bottle-strewn party site. Be proud of a great, hidden asset in our community.
Peter Dykstra is the publisher of the Environmental Health News (www.ehn.org) and The Daily Climate (www.dailyclimate.org). He can be heard on WABE’s (90.1 FM) “Living On Earth” Sundays at 3 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @pdykstra