After thirteen years as president of Atlanta’s South River Watershed Alliance, Jacqueline Echols is used to dirty work: monitoring E. coli levels, hauling tires from the sandy river bottom, clashing with polluters in court. Still, she marvels at the mess that still surrounds the little waterway she pledged to protect.
“It’s a quarter of an inch on a map, if that,” Echols says of the South River, a tree-lined ribbon flowing sixty miles from the city’s south side to Middle Georgia’s Jackson Lake. “Just what is it about this river that has attracted the kind of degradation that’s been going on for six decades but seems to be on steroids the last two years?”
Echols is referring, in part, to a controversial police training complex the city is preparing to build in the South River Forest, through which Intrenchment Creek, one of the river’s major urban tributaries, runs. Meanwhile, the SRWA is involved in a high-profile lawsuit against DeKalb County over the sale of public parkland along Intrenchment to a developer. And Echols, a retired professor of political science and public administration, has sparred with DeKalb for years over recurring sewage spills; the county is upgrading its infrastructure but has only assigned a deadline to “priority areas,” not including the South River and the predominantly Black communities around it, where landfills, truck yards, and industrial sites far outnumber usable green spaces.
Each battle represents a potentially devastating blow, but Echols has a secret weapon: the river itself. On a clear day it is a serene green tunnel of birdsong, with a mostly lazy current broken by deadwood left behind from fallen trees and the occasional rubber reef (a.k.a. tires). It’s shallow enough for wading, bordered by sandy beaches that practically demand picnics—but until recent headlines, many Atlantans would have said the Chattahoochee is the only river running through town.
Echols and her team of volunteers lead kayak tours and canoe paddles and are working with municipalities downstream to develop the South River Water Trail, which includes building put-ins and take-outs. If enough people start using the waterway, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division will upgrade its designated use from “fishing” to “recreation,” thereby raising standards for water quality. After all, it’s impossible to paddle the South River and not see it as a priceless outdoor amenity for an underserved part of the city, and in general. “It’s an environmental fight, it’s a community fight, and it is a fight,” Echols says. “But it’s worth being fought.”
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Expertise: Environmental activism
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Advocating since: 1997
Peer praise: “Her love for the river, its wildlife, and the communities they weave through is surpassed only by her pursuit of justice,” says Margaret Spalding, the SRWA executive director and South River Forest Coalition cofounder. “The South River needs both, love and justice, and those, like Jackie, who demand it.”