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Ogeechee Riverkeeper Protects 5,500 Square Miles of Natural Georgia Riches

Learn how a small Statesboro nonprofit keeps two Georgia rivers safe for fishing, swimming, and drinking – protecting the human and wildlife communities that depend on them.

Starting in Crawfordville, and meandering 245 miles through cypress swamps and dense forests to meet the Atlantic Ocean at Ossabaw Sound, the Ogeechee River is one of the Georgia’s natural jewels, a treasure for fishers, swimmers, and wildlife, as well as a valuable drinking source. Along with its largest tributary, the Canoochee River, the Ogeechee watershed covers 5,540 square miles of southeast Georgia, an area larger than Rhode Island, Delaware, or Connecticut.

These tea-colored rivers have provided local citizens decades of memories, from hot summer days spent cooling off in local swimming holes to early mornings spent fishing for dinner. And in Statesboro, less than 10 miles south of where the river marks line between Bulloch and Screven counties, you’ll find the headquarters for a group of citizens dedicated to maintaining the river for generations to come.

“We are the voice for the rivers and the citizens who use the rivers,” explained Emily Markesteyn, executive director of Ogeechee Riverkeeper (ORK). “Our natural resources need protection and attention, so we are fighting for them.”

Ogeechee Riverkeeper was created in 2005 from the merger of two existing environmental nonprofits, Friends of the Ogeechee River and Canoochee Riverkeeper. Both of these groups were formed just years earlier as a formal organizing force for residents who were concerned about the effects of increasing pollution—largely due to ground runoff and dumping from booming poultry and agricultural facilities.

"We are the voice for the rivers and the citizens who use the rivers. Our natural resources need protection and attention, so we are fighitng for them."

Together, the two groups decided to join forces to create Ogeechee Riverkeeper, a part of the international Waterkeeper Alliance organization, and focus their efforts on the Ogeechee and Canoochee Rivers, as well as the region’s coastal waters.

“We’re part of more than 200 advocates working in different watersheds and systems around the world, for the common goal of improving the water quality of our rivers to make them fishable, swimmable, and drinkable,” Markesteyn said.

Advocacy, Investigation, and Action

ORK meets their mission in three major ways. They work in the policy and legislative realm to ensure that sound environmental policies are being put into place for future generations. Additionally, they investigate, monitor, and document any pollution issues on the river. Finally, they tie them together with a grassroots education and outreach program that informs residents about the condition of their waterways.

ORK has recently been thrust into the local spotlight as they push a Clean Water Act lawsuit against King America Finishing, Inc. for wastewater discharge violations. In May 2011, an estimated 38,000 fish were found dead along a 70-mile stretch of river downstream from the KAF discharge pipe—one of the largest known fish kills in Georgia history. An EPA analysis of water samples showed elevated levels of formaldehyde, ammonia, and hydrogen peroxide, and found KAF to have been releasing waste into the river without proper permits.

“This issue has opened the public’s eyes to what is going on in our backyard, and to our fight on behalf of them and the river."

Initially, the EPD and EPA investigation did not connect the kill to the discharge. However, in September 2011, EPD and KAF signed a consent order, imposing stricter monitoring standards and a $1 million penalty on the company. Not enough, said ORK: though tough, the measures were much lighter than could have been imposed under standing environmental laws.

With lawyers from Atlanta-based Green Law and Stack & Associates, ORK filed an appeal stating that the deal wasn’t subject to a legally-required open hearing, and did not go far enough to protect the waterway. After more than a year of hearings and appeals, a Superior Court judge ruled in June 2013 that the federal Clean Water Act lawsuit could proceed, even as KAF denied any link between their operation and the massive wildlife die-off.

“Part of our job is to act when there are violations of the law, and that’s what we’ve done,” Markesteyn said. “This issue has opened the public’s eyes to what is going on in our backyard, and to our fight on behalf of them and the river. Just proceeding with the suit is a small victory in itself.”

Downriver and Beyond

Though these rivers have been around for thousands of years, ORK is still a new and evolving group. As executive director, Markesteyn is the group’s only fulltime staff member. A Savannah native, she worked for seven years in a homeowners association, but always felt the need to put her Emory degree in environmental studies to work.

In addition to Markesteyn, ORK counts on the help of two summer interns and more than 50 volunteers to meet their mission. On top of the mission impact work, Markesteyn faces issues common to all nonprofits: finding new donors as grant money dries up, retaining an engaged volunteer corps, and reaching out to constituents.

As Ogeechee Riverkeeper works toward the end of its first decade, Markesteyn hopes to usher in a new age for the nonprofit: “I want ORK to be recognized as a knowledgeable authority on water issues in our basin, the state and nationally, and we want to continue to build partnerships with environmental advocates, policy makers and regulators,” she said. “It’s our job to make sure all of these players work together to ensure our natural resources are here for future generations.”

Learn more about Ogeechee Riverkeeper by visiting their website or Facebook page.

Tom Zimmerman is Communications Manager at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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