For 12 years, Dr. Jacqueline Echols has served as President of the Board of the South River Watershed Alliance. She has played a crucial role in fighting for the protection and improvement of the South River, a major urban river running through Atlanta, Georgia. Though the South River’s water quality has somewhat improved thanks to community advocacy, the river now faces one of its greatest threats yet: sprawling developments proposed on either side of the river’s largest tributary, one of which would be for a massive police training facility that some activists have dubbed Cop City. Dr. Echols spoke with The ARD about the impacts of environmental racism and the ongoing struggle for environmental and social justice in Atlanta. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
• Donate to the South River Watershed Alliance.
• Sign the petition to demand that the EPA enforce the Clean Water Act in DeKalb County.
• Contribute to the legal fight to preserve Intrenchment Creek Park.
Q: What is the importance of the South River?
The South River watershed, the area that drains to the river, is 544 miles. It drains a huge part of Southeast Georgia. The South River has struggled for a really long time and is struggling even today. It’s still very much impacted by Atlanta’s combined sewer system. Atlanta is one of three cities in Georgia that still operates a combined sewer overflow system where sewage and stormwater mix in the same pipe when it rains. Once you mix a little bit of sewage with a whole lot of rainwater, what you end up with is just a whole lot of sewage. Atlanta operates nine miles of combined sewer, and a lot of it goes into the South River.
The city’s combined sewer discharges are supposed to meet Clean Water Act standards. The Georgia EPD is ultimately responsible for ensuring water quality standards are met. That doesn’t mean they are. Two and a half years ago, we started testing in partnership with Georgia State University’s Department of Geosciences and have been able to identify two chronic sources of pollution with E. coli numbers that were consistently off the charts. Without the South River Watershed Alliance taking on that responsibility, remediation of pollution sources just wasn’t happening.
Q: How would proposed developments, including the Atlanta Police Foundation’s “Cop City,” impact the South River?
Intrenchment Creek is the largest urban tributary of the South River. The proposed police training facility and the Intrenchment Creek Park development are in the headwaters, which is where most pollution comes from. I don’t think I ever remember Intrenchment Creek meeting Clean Water Act standards. We’re at risk of losing green space on both sides of the creek in the headwaters, which would have a tremendous impact on water quality in a creek and river that’s already not meeting state water quality standards for sediment. Development creates sediment—you can’t get around it—and sediment literally chokes the life out of the stream. This is not a frivolous challenge because it’s a Clean Water Act issue.
Q: How has the city engaged with residents living next to the proposed development sites?
Folks were blindsided by it. It was out of the blue, and at that point, they just wanted to have some public comments and move forward at lightning speed. There was no effort on the part of the City of Atlanta to reach out to communities ahead of time. It was presented as a done deal.
But there was an immediate effort to resist. There was tremendous opposition for a number of reasons. This is the largest contiguous piece of green space left inside I-285.
Q: Do you believe that the lack of community consultation is connected to community demographics?
In the Upper South River watershed, about 76% of the population is Black and of moderate means, though it’s gentrifying. You can’t separate social and environmental justice issues. They go hand in hand.
In other communities, this wouldn’t even be thought of. This wouldn’t be happening anywhere else in Atlanta other than Southeast Atlanta because of the makeup of the area and who lives there. That is why it has and continues to struggle. This would be a business to train police from all over the country.
Would you want it in your neighborhood? Would you want to live next door to gunfire, exploding gunfire, or tires screeching all day? Why would you even consider it if it’s something you wouldn’t want in your neighborhood? We aren’t that different from a community standpoint, a quality of life standpoint—we all want the same things.
The people who live around this green space deserve better. Public resistance to this plan has been significant from day one, and it’s increasing now. If you focus on revitalizing the community with the environment and the river as the foundation, I sincerely believe that you can prevent the usual displacement and gentrification that happens as communities change.
Q: What can we do?
Public support and financial support are essential. It does take a village in all of its forms to fight this and keep this issue at the forefront. If you ever get to Atlanta and it’s warm, look me up, and we can plan a trip down the South River.