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. 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