Heroes of the ‘Hooch
Sally Bethea, founding Chattahoochee Riverkeeper
Back in the 1980s and even into the 1990s heavy rains would overwhelm the city’s sewers. Drainage pipes would discharge condoms, tampons, and toilet paper onto the banks of Clear Creek, which ultimately flows into the Chattahoochee. Three decades later, the images are seared into Sally Bethea’s memory. “I still have photos of hunks of feces in parks where children played,” she says.
In 1994 Bethea was recruited to launch the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. One year later the nonprofit sued the city over persistent sewage spills into the waterway, ultimately forcing a $2 billion overhaul of the system. With Bethea at the helm, the group fought a sealant company for dumping pollutants in the river, analyzed water samples from tributaries, and battled legislation that would have harmed the region’s water supply.
Although she retired in 2014, Bethea now serves as board president of the Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy. Today average bacteria levels downstream from Atlanta are 80 percent lower than they were in the 1990s. Next time you go tubing or turn on your tap, thank Bethea.
Darryl Haddock, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance
Growing up in New Jersey, Darryl Haddock dreamed of becoming the “first black Jacques Cousteau.” “I would have a boat and live in the Caribbean,” the 53-year-old College Park resident says. While working as a state water quality analyst in 1996 Haddock and a tech-savvy group of southwest Atlantans blocked the city’s plan to store downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead’s washed-away trash and untreated sewage in a tunnel under mostly black neighborhoods. “[They] didn’t think about stormwater being another nail in the coffin of urban communities,” he says.
Fresh from victory, the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance was created to train residents to protect Chattahoochee tributaries that have been inundated with garbage and sewage. Haddock helps residents spot pollution in Proctor; Utoy; and Sandy creeks; picks up tires; and teaches the next generation of Cousteaus at its 26-acre center. “Residents may not have PhDs, but they still have value they can add to the conversation.”
Jerry Hightower, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
In 1970 Jerry Hightower returned from the Vietnam War to find development crowding the banks of the Chattahoochee. Growing up in Sandy Springs, he would play in its creeks “until his lips turned blue.” On days off from working as a police officer at Fort McPherson, the 22-year-old passed out fliers on Powers Ferry Road, rallying passersby to protect the waterway.
Through Roger Buerki, another river advocate, Hightower joined Friends of the River, a group of conservationists. Over the next six years the group won over garden clubs, politicians, business groups, and residents. Together, they blocked above-ground sewer lines from being laid along the river. In 1978 came their crowning achievement: President Jimmy Carter protected 6,300 riverfront acres for hikers and paddlers.
A summer gig as a ranger at the park Hightower helped create turned into a career teaching students about the river that lasts to this day. Thirty-eight years later, he’s still on its banks. “Everything I do is for a generation I will never know,” he says.
This article originally appeared in our August 2017 issue.