She is regularly seen leading tours of the river in a kayak or canoe.
What she does is fun. But it’s also strategic.
If she can convince locals and others to visit the river regularly, South River’s designated use can be upgraded from fishing to recreation. That would force the state to impose higher water quality standards for the river, something that Echols and others have been pushing for and that has earned her recognition by Garden & Gun magazine as a “champion of conservation” for 2023.
“She has been really effective in being an advocate for the river,” said Amanda Heckert, the magazine’s executive editor. “We call her a water warrior.”
As president of the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA), Echols has spent about 12 years donating her time and effort to protecting and improving water quality in the river, which few Georgians have ever seen, let alone enjoyed as they do the Chattahoochee or Lake Lanier.
Gina Webber, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, says Echols is “just truly a community activist and advocate.
“She is such a positive person, even though the work she does is some of the most challenging in the conservation movement, currently,” Webber said. “The fact that she does this out of her own personal labor and time really speaks to how much she cares about her community and the South River. We need more people like that.”
Echols said the river – that joins with the Alcovy and Yellow rivers at Jackson Lake to form the Ocmulgee River – is much more than an untapped treasure. She said it is a symbol of the type of environmental injustice that Black and brown communities have endured for years.
In 2021, South River was named the fourth most endangered river in America by the environmental watchdog group American Rivers.
Fighting to improve the river’s water quality, Echols and volunteers with SRWA conduct water-quality testing each month and scout for new sources of contamination that need fixing.
They’ve been part of court battle after court battle, blaming much of the river’s pollution problems on the city of Atlanta’s combined sewer system and DeKalb County sanitary sewage spills. Both governments are under consent orders and are making what some argue have been slow-as-turtle improvements.
Echols has expertise beyond her on-the-job training. She holds college degrees in political science and public administration and has taught political science in college.
“That has served me well,” she said.
Most recently, Echols and the alliance have been drawn into one of Atlanta’s biggest political controversies in recent memory: the proposed construction of an Atlanta public safety training center on 300 acres in the South River Forest. Echols said she opposes the location of the training facility.
Echols and the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA) have created two programs to showcase the South River and demonstrate to the Georgia Environmental Protection Agency that it’s a valued resource that deserves protection.
Recreational Program: SRWA offers recreational opportunities, including kayaking trips in the Spring through the Fall, water sampling, and trash and tire clean-ups.
Water Trail: Downstream local governments have created and the public is invited to use trailheads along the river that include boat and kayak ramps, parking, and other amenities. The trail runs 40 navigable miles from Panola Shoals to Jackson Lake and is a regional effort to promote increased use of the river for recreation.
Find out how to help the South River Watershed Alliance at southriverga.org