Sally Bethea talks saving the Chattahoochee

Memoir chronicles the battle to restore and protect the river.
As founding director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Sally Bethea hired a lawyer in 1995 and filed suit against the city for violating the Clean Water Act. Her victory resulted in a $2 billion overhaul of the city's sewage system, which had been dumping raw waste into the river when it rained. (Natrice Miller/

As founding director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Sally Bethea hired a lawyer in 1995 and filed suit against the city for violating the Clean Water Act. Her victory resulted in a $2 billion overhaul of the city's sewage system, which had been dumping raw waste into the river when it rained. (Natrice Miller/

Sally Bethea was ticked off — but also validated.

Retired as the director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, free to pursue recreational paddling, she had planned a July 3 kayak trip on the river when she received word that a spill from a Fulton County wastewater treatment plant had boosted the bacteria in the Chattahoochee to dangerous levels.

The National Park Service closed 15 miles of the river to recreational users over the holiday weekend. (Eleven miles remained closed last week.)

The dangerous bacteria were discovered by a BacteriAlert, a monitoring system devised by the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service.

Although she had to change her kayak plans, “It feels a bit vindicating for me,” said Bethea the day after Independence Day. The organization she co-founded had, once again, protected the river and the people who love it.

Now retired from Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Sally Bethea enjoys the views of the river after hiking along East Palisades trail in Sandy Springs. (Natrice Miller/

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A nonprofit organization that protects and restores the Chattahoochee River Basin, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper had its beginnings in 1994, one year after a shocking failure of Atlanta’s infrastructure.

In June 1993, after a series of violent rainstorms, a sinkhole opened up in the parking lot of a Midtown hotel, swallowing several cars and killing two employees of Courtyard by Marriott.

The city had been warned about the deteriorating sewer line beneath that parking lot in 1981, and the line had collapsed before, in 1971.

In those days, Atlanta’s sewer system was a mess. With every hard rain, the crumbling infrastructure dumped raw sewage into the Chattahoochee. Yet neither the degradation of the city’s rivers, nor tens of millions in fines from the federal government, nor even the deaths of innocent workers, motivated the city to change its ways.

Then Sally Bethea, a divorced mother of two pre-teen boys, took the city to task. She was in her 40s, she had interned for the EPA and had a master’s in city and regional planning, but she also had been a stay-at-home mom and wasn’t positive about her abilities. “I was scared to death,” she recalled during a recent hike along the Chattahoochee River.

With seed money from the Turner Foundation and the help of Ted Turner’s daughter Laura Turner Seydel and her husband Rutherford Seydel, Bethea became the founding director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. Her first tasks were to hire a lawyer, create a coalition of plaintiffs and, in 1995, file suit against the city for violating the Clean Water Act.

In a photo from 2014 Sally Bethea, founding director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, collects trash during a Sweep the Hooch cleanup, an annual event that draws more than a thousand volunteers to remove garbage from the river. Photo: Riverkeeper

Credit: Riverkeeper

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Credit: Riverkeeper

The evidence was irrefutable. The Riverkeeper won a summary judgment requiring a $2 billion fix.

Former mayor Shirley Franklin, who took office in 2002, described Bethea as the driving wheel behind the transformation of Atlanta’s sewer system. Franklin pushed the city council and the business community to implement the changes required by the EPA, but she says without the lawsuit from the Riverkeeper, the city would have stonewalled.

“There was nothing to indicate the city was going to take this on, on their own,” said Franklin. “(Bethea’s) leadership was not only pivotal, it was essential. Take Sally Bethea out of it, take the Riverkeeper out of it, and it would not have happened.”

Courtesy of University of Georgia Press

Credit: University of Georgia Press

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Credit: University of Georgia Press

The river unseen

This month Bethea publishes “Keeping the Chattahoochee: Reviving and Defending a Great Southern River” (University of Georgia Press, $24.95). It is a personal memoir and also the story of the contentious battle to protect Atlanta’s sometimes-forgotten river.

In it Bethea recounts the remarkable growth of the Riverkeeper organization from a one-woman show into a $2 million-a-year enterprise with 10,000 members.

She also describes the pushback she received from politicians and business leaders, including one county official who told Rutherford Seydel, “We will bury you.”

On a recent sunny spring day, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to weaken the Clean Water Act, Bethea, 72, prepared to hike down the Cabin Creek trail into the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Her path would take her through the north metro corner where the river crosses under I-75 and I-285. It was a trail she visited repeatedly during the pandemic like a contemplative monk treading the stations of the cross or the tracks of a labyrinth.

“Every time I come, I see something new,” she said, pausing in the dappled shade. “Here’s Catesby’s trillium,” she said, bending toward a triple-leafed blossom. “I’ve never seen that here before.”

This spiritual and physical exercise, returning weekly to the same woodland path for more than a year, was inspired by David Haskell’s book, “The Forest Unseen.” It helped Bethea deal with COVID-19 anxiety, and it helped her write her book: Her evocative descriptions of encounters with the plants, rocks and streams of this short stretch of riverside trail serve as anchors for each chapter.

Jason Ulseth co-director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and Sally Bethea, one of the founders of the nonprofit, were out for a pleasure ride on the Chattahoochee recently but still stopped to take a sample from a suspicious point source. (Natrice Miller/

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Such focus was not easy. A wiry individual with a fast metabolism, she is almost always on a mission and likes to move quickly. Stopping to examine wild ageratum flowers and Amanita muscaria mushrooms required shifting gears; slowing down was against her nature.

“It takes practice to unlearn hurrying,” she said, as she gestured to a rank of resurrection ferns clinging to a fallen log. The reward, she said, was a saturated experience of the world she has been working so hard to save.

Growing the Riverkeeper

Much of Atlanta’s sewer infrastructure was built between 1890 and 1930. When the population hit its growth spurt in the 1970s, maintenance of the system was neglected. A recurring problem was the so-called “combined sewer overflow” system that funneled storm runoff and sewage through the same pipes. Heavy rains caused those pipes to overflow and send untreated waste into streams and creeks that fed the Chattahoochee.

In 1995, less than a year before the city would host the Olympics, it became clear that the only way the city would respond to the emergency was through the courts. The Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and a coalition of landowners, local governments and downstream conservation groups filed suit,

Then-mayor Bill Campbell railed against the lawsuit. Business leaders were annoyed. “I had pretty big, impressive leaders of our city at the time say, ‘This is going to be really bad for your law practice. You’re going to really regret this,’” said Seydel.

In 1997 the federal Environmental Protection Agency conducted some surprise inspections of treatment plants and decided to join the Riverkeeper’s lawsuit.

Later that year, U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash delivered a summary judgment: The city of Atlanta had violated the Clean Water Act. In negotiations over the next several years, the city agreed to a settlement that required it to spend $2 billion on its vast network of sewer lines and treatment facilities and to undertake a greenway acquisition program to protect nearly 2,000 acres in Atlanta and downstream.

Atlanta filmmaker Hal Jacobs is completing a documentary on Sally Bethea and the movement to save Atlanta’s rivers. A trailer of the film, to be released later this year, is below:

A new headquarters

One overcast day in June, Bethea is flying up the Chattahoochee River in an 18-foot jet boat, the breeze pushing her short hair straight back. Flapping parallel to the boat are two giant herons, looking like blue pterodactyls among the green trees along the shore.

She retired as leader of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in 2014. Piloting the boat is the new riverkeeper, Jason Ulseth, with his colleague, executive director Juliet Cohen, on board.

Heading upstream, the boat passes below a bridge that has become home to a host of barn swallows. As the health of the river improved, insect life returned, bringing back the swallows that feed on the bugs, said Bethea. “They migrate to Brazil every year and then come back to this bridge.”

Bethea has just visited the Riverkeeper’s new headquarters, which is right on the Chattahoochee, about four miles downstream from the Peachtree Creek confluence. (The group began as the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, but lost the “upper” qualifier when it later took responsibility for the whole river.)

In contrast with its former home in a donated basement, the new facility spans 3,000 square feet, contains a $30,000 lab for analyzing water samples and has access to the river.

The new offices are in the Riverview Landing complex, which includes The Eddy apartments, Reformation Brewery, Chattahoochee Coffee Company and a park. The existence of this development is testament to the transformation of the Chattahoochee. Years ago the location attracted industrial facilities.

“The Chattahoochee River downstream of Atlanta was considered one of the most polluted waterways in Georgia when Riverkeeper was established in 1994,” writes Bethea. “It was disgusting, hazardous and shameful.”

Today it is valuable real estate.

A Chattahoochee Riverkeeper intern collects a sample of river water for lab testing. (Natrice Miller/

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Storm over storm water

Fixing broken pipes and separating storm water pipes from sewage pipes wasn’t enough. The city needed the capacity to contain runoff from sudden showers long enough to keep them from overwhelming treatment facilities.

Some neighborhood and conservation groups preferred buying property to create retention ponds. The Riverkeeper spent $60,000 on an engineering review. The engineers and the Riverkeeper endorsed the city’s plan to add capacity by boring tunnels through the granite bedrock under the city.

“Some of her best friends didn’t speak to her for a year,” said Alan Toney, chair of the Fulton County Soil and Water Conservation District. But the solution helped ease the storm-water stress. Instead of 60 to 80 spills a year, said Ulseth, the number has dropped to about four.

Riverkeeper has also dramatically expanded its testing capacity, drawing samples from surface water at 200 different sites every week. When pollution from poultry plants above Lake Lanier caused a massive fish kill in Flat Creek in 2009, it was Riverkeeper testing that provided evidence to the EPA. Similarly, the BacteriAlert program sounded the alarm over the July 4 holiday.

In her retirement Bethea taught for six years in the school of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech and began writing “Keeping the Chattahoochee” during the pandemic.

Her son Charles Bethea, a staff writer for New Yorker magazine, provided editing help. Said Sally Bethea, Charles inspired her to make the book “crisper.”

The river is 90% cleaner than it was in the '90s, but keeping it that way requires constant monitoring. Says Bethea, “We can’t stop; we can never stop." (Natrice Miller/

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Among the emotional moments in the book is a scene describing the dramatic transformation of a trash-filled urban tributary.

The consent decree required the city to not only fix its problems but to perform some community services. In addition to acquiring and protecting green space, the city hired crews to scour garbage out of 37 miles of tributaries.

She describes watching a “human vacuum cleaner” move up Proctor Creek, pulling out broken toilets, bedsprings, automobile tires, whole automobiles, “everything larger than a cigarette butt.” They collected 568 tons of trash.

“I felt a lump in my throat, watching these people toil to help bring our city streams back to light and life.”

Today, yes, Atlantans have tossed trash back in the creek — though no cars. And while the Chattahoochee River is “90% cleaner,” there are still sewage spills and even the occasional sinkhole. (A collapsed line swallowed a car on Ponce de Leon late last month.)

What it shows, said Bethea, is that we will always need a Riverkeeper. “The challenges with regard to climate change are even trickier and scarier,” she said. “We can’t stop; we can never stop.”


“Keeping the Chattahoochee.” Author Sally Bethea will sign copies of her book 7 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 15, at the Hewlett Lodge in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in celebration of the 45th anniversary of Jimmy Carter’s signing of the bill that created the national park. Free, but reservations required. 1978 Island Ford Parkway, Sandy Springs.

Sally Bethea will also discuss her book during an appearance at the Carter Center, 7 p.m. Sept. 12. 441 John Lewis Freedom Parkway NE, Atlanta. 404-865-7100. Hosted by A Cappella Books,