THE SATILLA RIVER
The Satilla River basin lies in southeastern Georgia,
draining nearly 4,000 square miles of upper and lower coastal plain habitat.
This "blackwater" system is 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. Large acres of old growth exist in the expansive
floodplains of the Satilla, and include large beautiful buttressing bald
cypress, ecologically significant long leaf pine, loblolly bays and numerous
other plant species.
Numerous fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals
call the Satilla home. Many of these species common, but among them rare,
threatened, and endangered, and inhabit its waters, floodplain, tributary
systems, and isolated upland wetlands. This includes the amazing Swallow-tailed
kite, the gopher tortoise, indigo snake, redbreast sunfish, southern leopard
frog, wood stork and many others. The diversity and beauty of the Satilla River
wildlife is second to none.
Historically, the river was part of a huge transportation
and subsistence network for the expansive Creek Indian Nation. 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. 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, and in some cases rapid, population growth. 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, structures are being built 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. 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 not 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.
The Satilla needs our help. The Satilla Riverkeeper is an effective
way to reverse the course of events and build momentum in the right direction