Aug 21, 2006

New Coastkeeper for Georgia's Altamaha River Coastal Region

The coast of Georgia provides a home to a wealth of plant and wildlife species. It serves as a nursery ground for fish, shellfish, and crustaceans and provides a vast food source for migratory birds. The area also contains one of the fastest growing populations in the Southeast where development, clearing, infilling, and pollution are causing an environmental crisis.

To protect Georgia’s priceless estuary and coast, the Altamaha Riverkeeper (ARK) is raising funds for a Coastkeeper to work in the coastal zone of the Altamaha River Watershed where land, fresh water, and salt-water meet. To establish the new program, the Malcolm Fraser Foundation is offering $50,000 to match dollar for dollar all contributions.
No one works harder to protect the Altamaha River Watershed, an area that covers 14,000 square miles, than Altamaha Riverkeeper James Holland. Holland explains, “The river system begins near Atlanta and Athens in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and flows to the Atlantic. The Coastkeeper will concentrate in the lower Altamaha where the rivers reach the ocean creating one of the most the productive estuaries and food webs in the world. It is a huge watershed; with a Coastkeeper in place I will be able to concentrate in the upper Altamaha where many of the problems begin.”
The new Coastkeeper will investigate rapidly increasing requests for assistance with pollution in the watershed’s coastal zone, working with regulatory agencies for enforcement of local, state, and federal water quality laws. He or she will actively participate in policy-making meetings, encourage sound land use in development, and build advocacy through environmental education. 

Working toward a solution 
The Altamaha Riverkeeper is seeking support for the Coastkeeper funding.
Deborah Sheppard, ARK’s Executive Director says, “We need everyone’s financial support to hire a Coastkeeper to protect our priceless coastal habitat, where citizens, leading industries, tourism and commercial fishing all depend on a healthy environment. Georgia’s most ecologically and economically valuable resources—our marshlands, coastal waters, wildlife, and marine life are at a tuning point. Please act now to keep it healthy.”

In addition to providing some of the most beautiful scenic vistas in the country, Georgia’s coastal zone performs many valuable functions. Salt marshes and many of their natural inhabitants serve as filters that remove sediments and toxins from the water. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. Marshes also act as mainland buffers: by slowing and absorbing storm surges, flooding and erosion are reduced. 

Coastal threats increase daily
Scientists use impacts on biological diversity as indicators of risk to human health, explaining that increased pollution and habitat degradation threaten our coastal ecosystem. The Southeast Watershed Forum notes the Southeast is the country’s most biologically diverse aquatic region with 62 % of our nation’s freshwater fish species and 75% of our country’s mussel species. However, 34% of those fish species are at risk of extinction and 90% of the mussels are imperiled.
Between 1950 and the mid-1970s, over half of the original United States’ salt marshes were destroyed. Most of the destruction was caused by marsh filling to create more land area for homes, timber, industry, and agriculture; ditching for mosquito control caused even more losses. Although today we regard salt marshes as valuable resources, threats increase daily.

As development moves closer and closer to the coast, incidents of sediment and erosion originating from construction sites and entering marshes and rivers are multiplying. The quantity of non-point source pollution caused by industry and runoff from bridges and roads is growing. Pesticides, farm/lawn/golf course fertilizers, over taxed water treatment plants, sewage spray fields, and the burgeoning growth of septic systems generate more pollutants. Eventually, these pollutants enter estuaries and rivers. The problem is clear; the coast of Georgia needs help.

Accelerated growth is causing a water quality crisis that is evolving faster than regulatory agencies can handle. The Coastkeeper’s work will include making site visits, conducting water tests, taking photos/videos to document pollution, and communicating with regulatory agencies. The Coastkeeper will monitor and encourage consistent enforcement of established water quality laws to protect sensitive areas in our coastal zone from environmental disaster.