Actress Gloria Reuben, also president of Waterkeeper Alliance, visits the Hooch

Actress Gloria Reuben takes a tour with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper execs including official "Riverkeeper" Jason Ulseth (right). Reuben is president of the Waterkeeper Alliance. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com
Caption
Actress Gloria Reuben takes a tour with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper execs including official "Riverkeeper" Jason Ulseth (right). Reuben is president of the Waterkeeper Alliance. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

The ‘ER’ star was in Atlanta to shoot Showtime’s ‘The First Lady’

Gloria Reuben is best known as an award-winning actress on shows such as “ER,” “Mr. Robot” and “City on a Hill.” She was recently in Atlanta to shoot Showtime’s “The First Lady” as Valerie June Jarrett, a confidante to Michelle Obama (Viola Davis).

But Reuben, a social activist, also happens to be the president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit network of 350 worldwide environmental groups to ensure every community has drinkable, fishable, swimmable water.

While in Atlanta, Reuben recently took a tour of the Chattahoochee River with three members of the 27-year-old Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which educates, advocates and secures the protection and stewardship of the river and is part of the Waterkeeper Alliance. I joined them for the hourlong trip.

This is Reuben’s first trip with one of her member groups since she became president last November. The pandemic restricted her ability to visit sites but the New York-based actress hopes to do plenty more in the coming months.

“It’s the first time I’ve been on a boat in almost two years,” she said, before the trip. “It’s really exciting.”

Reuben had previously been a trustee on the board of the Waterkeeper Alliance, concerned by how coal companies would blast mountaintops in West Virginia and dump the detritus in the rivers below, rendering the water undrinkable for the residents.

“I was so naive,” she said. “This couldn’t be happening in the United States! But it was.”

Gloria Reuben with the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth on the Hooch on May 25, 2021. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com
Caption
Gloria Reuben with the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth on the Hooch on May 25, 2021. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

This isn’t the first time Reuben has done something not directly connected with acting. She had previously worked as back-up singer for Tina Turner and people would ask her if she was stepping away from acting. The answer was no. She said she can run the alliance and take acting jobs, too. “For me it’s like the heart with love,” she said. “The more you love, the more your heart expands. I’m just not focused on one thing.”

Jason Ulseth, who bears the official Chattahoochee Riverkeeper title, was the primary guide for this trip. He noted how the Chattahoochee is the smallest river feeding water to a major metropolitan area in the United States, leading to all sorts of water disputes with neighboring states like Alabama and Florida. Fortunately, there is no current drought and during this trip, the river was relatively high and easy to traverse.

The tour began in what had been a heavy industrial area where auto salvage and oil drum storage yards once presided. As a result, the water used to be less than palatable from the 1950s into the 1990s. Or as Ulseth said bluntly: “This was nasty cesspool, sewage-infested stretch of the river.”

The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper group helped change that by legally forcing the city to spend $2 billion to upgrade its aging sewage systems and significantly reduce the amount of gunk to land in the river itself after it rains too much. “Developers now see this stretch as an amenity,” Ulseth said. The water in that area is much cleaner as a result as well.

The tour started near Vine City where stormwater trash runoff had clogged up a corner of the waterway including no shortage of plastic bottles and fast-food containers. They had lost funding for a trash trap that would have resolved the issue but still have 10 across the watershed. The organization also does regular trash cleanups on land before they even reach the water.

We passed what had been Atlanta’s coal-powered power plant, since converted to natural gas nine years ago. “It has less water and thermal impact on the river,” he said. “But we’re still dealing with decades of legacy coal ash that is stored on site.”

Executive director Juliet Cohen said the coal ash is seeping into the groundwater. “It’s not classified as hazardous waste,” she said. “It’s household waste. It’s stored the same way as banana peels.” The wastewater treatment plant is farther upstream, where water is chlorinated and provides a slightly soapy smell as we passed by.

Trash that runs into the Chattahoochee River collects in some areas and have to be fished out. Jason Ulseth, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper points out the mess. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com
Caption
Trash that runs into the Chattahoochee River collects in some areas and have to be fished out. Jason Ulseth, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper points out the mess. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@j

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@j

We rode up toward Buckhead, upstream from the industrial plants. On the way back, we found an abandoned kayak the Riverkeeper group plans to use itself. And Reuben was thrilled to find a floating water cooler with beer still inside which Ulseth said appeared recently misplaced.

Gloria Reuben was able to nab a floating water cooler out of the Hooch, which still contained beer in it. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com
Caption
Gloria Reuben was able to nab a floating water cooler out of the Hooch, which still contained beer in it. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Juliet Cohen, executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper; Gloria Reuben, president of the Waterkeeper Alliance; and Jess Sterling, technical programs director. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com
Caption
Juliet Cohen, executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper; Gloria Reuben, president of the Waterkeeper Alliance; and Jess Sterling, technical programs director. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@

About the Author

ajc.com