Planting Hope for Atlanta’s Water Resources
By: Myriam Dormer, Urban Conservation Director, The Nature Conservancy in Georgia
In recent weeks, some heavy storms have given the sprouting peas and spindly tomatoes in my garden reason to grow. Yet even as my young plants reach for the sun, I’m not getting my hopes up too high because much of metro Atlanta is still in a state of drought.
We can all do our part to conserve water in our homes and offices – I’ll water my garden as little as possible and follow watering restrictions. But there’s much more to water management than individual actions during episodic droughts and floods. We must think more broadly about water issues – and with an Atlanta mayoral election in 2018, the time is now to ask bigger questions, including how we make decisions about investments in our city’s water infrastructure.
Every decision, including where and how we build homes and other development has a direct impact on our ability to secure clean, abundant water for our future. When rain falls on parking lots and buildings, it carries trash, oil, chemicals from lawns and gardens and other harmful substances into our waterways. In contrast, forests and greenspaces absorb water, slowing it down and cleaning sediment and pollution out before it enters rivers and tributaries.
When people think about water and Atlanta, years of litigation and media coverage means that the Chattahoochee River is probably what comes to mind. The headwaters and much of the Chattahoochee, even into the metro area, flow through vast protected forests and a network of parks. And while there’s surely more to be done for the Chattahoochee, the entire southeast section of Atlanta, including my home and garden, drains to the South River.
Spanning the boundary between the City of Atlanta and DeKalb County, the South River begins close to the Atlanta airport and flows through Rockdale, Henry, Newton and other counties before reaching Jackson Lake in Jasper County. For generations, this area was home to family farms, but during the 1960s those gave way to highways, businesses and residential development. As growth here continued, the river has been ravaged by sewage runoff, heavy siltation and pollution.
As the mayoral race heats up, we must draw attention to the history, the significance and the outlook for the South River. The Nature Conservancy – a global conservation organization that has worked in Georgia since the 1960s – is committed to making more of the world’s highly polluted rivers drinkable, swimmable, and fishable. That’s why we are launching the South River Neighborhood Network in partnership with Park Pride, the South River Watershed Alliance, Trees Atlanta and many others. With an emphasis on advocacy, stewardship, education and community-building the Network will fund and support stream and forest revitalization demonstration projects to improve water quality, wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities.
Initial projects will include removing invasive species and planting native grasses and shrubs to improve bird habitat and water absorption in southeast Atlanta’s Constitution Lakes Park, home of a 200-acre scenic wetland and the famed Doll’s Head Trail. At Sugar Creek Farm in Decatur, a pollinator garden designed to slow and filter stormwater runoff will be planted in a floodplain. These sites will illustrate how investments in science-based projects can improve nature and communities in the sometimes-neglected South River watershed.
Maintaining and improving healthy and accessible waterways and the communities that surround them can be difficult. Not all areas see the same level of investment, sometimes leaving less affluent communities with fewer dollars and less support for land conservation and water management. The South River Watershed is home to some communities struggling with high crime rates and chronic poverty. It is also home to many people who care about their communities – providing examples of what it means to be resilient in the face of regional growth and changes in land use. With each new conversation, I learn about efforts underway to restore and enhance the rich local culture people here embody. Each person I meet has a different relationship with the land and water, but they all have something in common – this is the place they call home.
No matter who comes out on top of the mayoral race, these issues will be on the agenda, and they are all connected. Paying attention to our waterways matters now – during a time of drought or flood – and every day, so we can be better prepared for the next challenge.
I’m watching my plants grow, hopeful I will enjoy their bounty as the summer heats up. And I am hopeful that our city leaders can support the growing swell of support for the South River because so much more than my garden depends on it.