Milestones: Riverkeeper Sally Bethea

Ansley Park resident Sally Bethea remembers well a day back in the 1990s when a pleasure boat ride down the Chattahoochee River turned into a stomach-churning event.

"There were big hunks of sludge and gallons of raw sewage in the river," she said. "It was like a Third World sewer system."

As an environmentalist who volunteered with the Sierra Club and employee of the Environment Protection Agency in Atlanta, Bethea knew the problem wasn't isolated to one day.

"Every time it rained, the kind of material you find in your toilets would gush into creeks, catch on branches and bushes along the stream and run through parks and neighborhoods," she said. "Our sewer system had not been maintained or upgraded for decades. It just wasn't a priority to fix the infrastructure and make the critical investments that were the underpinnings of intown growth."

Since 1994, Bethea's mission has been to keep a clean river flowing through the metro area. Along with co-founders Laura and Rutherford Seydel, she launched the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental organization that was one of the first of its kind in the world.

"We were the 11th licensed riverkeeper focusing on the Chattahoochee from Helen in the north to West Point on the Alabama line," said Bethea. "Our goal has always been enough clean water for people and wildlife now and in the future."

The decision to start the organization wasn't an easy one, Bethea admits.

"I really took a leap," she said. "My boys were 8 and 12 and I'd never done any fund-raising. And I knew it wouldn't be cheap to build the kind of credible, professional, science-based organization we now have."

But Bethea's determination led to the city of Atlanta revamping its sewer lines and water treatment plants at a cost of about $2 billion, a project that helped the city's intown growth to soar. The organization's vigilance has reduced almost all of the sewage spills into the river.

She has also fostered other fledgling riverkeepers around the state. Recently, she spearheaded a name change to simply Chattahoochee Riverkeeper to reflect the group's commitment to the entire river basin.

"A lot of our work now is in education and water quality," she said. "Particularly in the last few years, we've focused on scarcity issues. We want to make sure this river stays healthy now and into the future."

Bethea sees that the job gets done by directing eight full-time and five part-time employees, more than 1,000 volunteers and a 16-member executive board. Co-founder Laura Turner Seydel credits Bethea's efforts for the healthy state the Chattahoochee is in today.

"We have not won the war by any means; we still have some issues. But it's quantifiably a much-improved system," said Seydel. "Much of that is because of Sally's dedication to this issue. It's been her heart and passion. And she's a strong person: You couldn't be a wilting violet when you're going up against the good ol' boys."

Bethea's work was recently recognized on a national level when she received the James R. Compton Lifetime Achievement Award, an annual honor that identifies those who have made significant contributions to the clean water of their communities. The award was presented at a national riverkeeper gathering in Maine.

"I was truly blown away," said Bethea. "To receive the award in front of so many colleagues who do incredible work for not much money under a lot of pressure all around the world was an inspirational and emotional moment."

The award solidified a partnership that has been around much longer than the 18-year-old Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

"With the exception of college, I've spent my life in Atlanta and I've been drinking the water," she said. "That means I've been intimately connected with the Chattahoochee almost all of my 61 years."

Information about the Riverkeeper is online at www.chattahoochee.org.

"Milestones" covers significant events and times in the lives of metro Atlantans. Big or small, well-known or not, tell us of a Milestone we should write about. Send information to hm_cauley@yahoo.com; call 404-514-6162; or mail to Milestones, c/o Jamila Robinson, 223 Perimeter Center Parkway N.E., Atlanta, Ga. 30346.