THE SATILLA RIVER: Where She's Been; Where We Want to Take Her
The Satilla River basin lies in southeastern Georgia, draining nearly 4,000 square miles of upper and lower coastal plain habitat. It is a "blackwater" system, heavily laden with tannins and other natural leachates, lending a clear, "iced tea" color to the waters, contrasting beautifully and markedly to the numerous "sugar-sand" bars along its reaches. Numerous plants, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, many common, but among them rare, threatened, and endangered species, inhabit its waters, floodplain, tributary systems, and isolated upland wetlands. Historically, the river was part of a huge transportation and subsistence network for the expansive Creek Indian Nation, and its mosaic of habitats remains an important ecological link between the systems whose headwaters are the Okefenokee Swamp, to the south and west, the mighty Altamaha system to the north, and the estuaries of Georgia's Golden Isles to the east. Also in the past, important industries centered on timber, naval stores, and commercial fisheries flourished in the Satilla basin. Today, (primarily pulp) timber, extensive row-crop agriculture, and light manufacturing are important economic engines. The landscape and river itself are enjoyed year-round for fishing, hunting, canoeing/kayaking, and other forms of nature-based recreation. The river produces exciting largemouth bass fishing, a world-class redbreast sunfish fishery, and, in its estuary, phenomenal speckled sea trout, red drum, tarpon, shark, and flounder fishing. The Satilla/St. Andrews Sound estuary is furthermore an important pillar of penaeid shrimp (brown and white) and blue crab production, harvested commercially and recreationally.
The beauty and diversity of the Satilla system belie, however, underlying problems in the basin. The counties in the basin are experiencing steady population growth, ranging from 1.5% per annum (Irwin County) to 4.5% per annum (Camden County). Significantly, two of the counties in the basin that are either on the coast (Camden) of Georgia or immediately adjacent to the coastal tier of counties (Brantley, 3.2%) are experiencing the highest growth rates. Land prices have quadrupled in Camden County and doubled in Brantley County since the mid-1990s. Viewed pragmatically, the highest-growth portions of the basin are nearly doubling in population every 20 years, and are facing major challenges for local and state governments, which are dealing with all sorts of infrastructure issues.
For example, in Brantley County, which has no building or zoning codes, a brand new elementary school already has several "portable" buildings serving as classrooms. Some of the schools themselves have been built square in the middle of wetland systems. Meanwhile, the middle and upper sections of the basin are struggling with the economic issues of slow or stagnant growth, including employment opportunities, placing pressures on the same infrastructures from an angle of lack of economic support. Throughout the basin, compliance with existing NPDES permits is largely unknown, and the condition of aging sewerage and combined drainage systems is problematic.
As local governments deal with increasing pressure on school systems, roads, public safety, court systems, and waste removal and disposal, or with the intractability of stagnation of their budgets, basic environmental inspections and enforcement are not anywhere near the center of their radar screens. Additionally, a culture of resistance to government involvement in private affairs creates a climate that is not conducive to recognizing and correcting activities and practices that threaten the overall health of the Satilla River basin and ecosystem. The protection of a river will not simply mean enforcement of existing laws, but actual cultural changes and, later, changes in the focus of local communities and their governing systems.
The state of the Satilla River system is largely unknown and generally understudied. Analyses point to "superior" habitats in some studies, declining quality (e.g. eutrophication) in others, or a system on the brink of potential decline in others. Analyses of time-series data are hampered by the lack thereof. And, sadly, in the case of instream data on nutrients and other water-quality parameters, long-running dataset accumulations initiated during the 1970s by state and federal agencies were discontinued during the 1990s. Water-quality issues and the invasion of the non-native flathead catfish pose dual threats to a world-class redbreast sunfish fishery. American and hickory shad runs have disappeared. The status of (endangered) shortnose and Atlantic sturgeons is unknown. Anecdotally, under low-flow conditions, accumulations of never-before-seen filamentous algae on snags and sandbars have been reported. There are 19 streams or stream segments that do no meet the minimum criteria for their "use" (primarily fishing) classifications, due to issues with fecal coliform, dissolved oxygen, and/or metal concentrations. Additionally, the hydrograph (ups and downs) of the Satilla has been substantially altered: Floods are quicker to manifest themselves, spike higher for a given amount of rain, then fall off quickly. Droughts are deeper and longer. Many among us feel we "know" the answers to how all this tied together, but much of the hard science suffers from a lack of the additional science needed to link it all together.
The University of Georgia's Satilla River Initiative plus the continued interest of scientists that first started working on the Satilla back in the 1990s hold promise for filling in some of the information blanks. The initial grassroots efforts of Save our Satilla (SOS) have brought focus on problems in the watershed, giving a loose aggregation of Satilla devotees the confidence they needed to begin to make changes in the basin. Statewide water resource planning under the Environmental Protection Division is finally becoming a reality, but the information base for efficacious planning in the Satilla basin is woefully inadequate. Perhaps equally importantly, the status of compliance with state/federal water-quality laws is unknown among the many public and private activities in the basin. A well-funded, proactive organization is needed to: 1) conduct enforcement, monitoring, and compliance action under the RIVERKEEPER® model; 2) push basin-wide awareness and education on the importance of the Satilla to the economy/ecology of the region, what her problems are (what we do know), and how to care for her; and 3) actively partner with the pioneering folks at SOS, other environmental NGOs, academia, state and federal agencies, local governments, the press, and the general public to support research (on what we don't know) and advocacy aimed at increasing the knowledge-base on watershed status and function in the Satilla River basin. A binding together of all these activities is necessary to stabilize the situation on the Satilla, foster changes in cultural attitudes toward environmental stewardship throughout the basin, and then begin to improve the quality of the Satilla River. Satilla RIVERKEEPER® is an effective way to reverse the course of events and build momentum in the right direction.
A Satilla River, its tributaries, and its terrestrial watershed that support healthy fisheries, safe swimming, diverse wildlife populations, superb recreational opportunities, a stable water supply, and sustainable human economic activity throughout the basin.
1. One hundred percent compliance among public and private activities within the Satilla River watershed with state/federal clean water laws and regulations.
2. A detailed knowledge of the structure and function of the Satilla River watershed ecological system, including long-running tabulations, archival, and analysis of key parameters that will allow responsive monitoring of the state of "health" of the system.
3. A high level of awareness among the general public, local governing bodies, and local business interests in the basin of the state of the Satilla River, the effect of their activities on the quality of the Satilla River system, and the importance of the Satilla River and its tributaries to their way and quality of life.
How We Get There
The operation of a strong Satilla RIVERKEEPER® organization, conducting and networking efforts to educate, inform, enforce, research, and litigate on issues in the Satilla River basin can meet these goals. It took many years to drive the Satilla into the condition she is in. There are many well-financed, quite vested interests who have stake in continuing to drive the Satilla toward being simply a waste-treatment and elimination system. It will take a lot of time and money to turn things around and get her back to where she deserves to be. You can and should become a part of this effort. We have started the ball rolling. Join NOW and help us get up an unstoppable head of steam. Contact us directly for the details on how you can help in many ways other than simple cash donations. We can't wait to work with you!!!