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Athens Rising

Having a picnic in the park. Going for a hike by a stream. Taking your kid fishing. So much of our Georgia upbringing is deeply connected to our beloved waterways. I know mine was; growing up on the banks of the Upper Chattahoochee, much of my childhood and adolescence was spent fishing, kayaking and playing in the river—hopefully, not to the detriment of my health.

Sadly, we’ve been advised not to enjoy the ‘Hooch up close. The same may hold true for Athens’ Oconee River, as well. Recent river monitoring has shown bacteria levels that may indicate a possible sewage leak. And need I remind us of the 2010 chemical spill that turned the North Oconee tributary Trail Creek bright blue?

Most of us enjoy spending time in a serene, natural setting (and if you haven’t yet, check it out). While a lot of us also want the new shops, restaurants and yoga studios that can pop up near the river, developments can’t help but erode soil during construction, then pollute the water with runoff from parking lots. Of course, we can’t bar development anywhere in the Oconee watershed, but we could expand our stream buffer zones, avoid straight-up clear-cutting land and install grass parking lots to absorb some run-off.

Thankfully, Athens has organizations that have taken on the responsibility of caring for our beloved river, such as the Upper Oconee Watershed Network. UOWN focuses on protecting the quality of the river and educating the public about water issues. Looking to get out on the water? They’ve got you covered. UOWN also holds river recreation programs as a great way to raise awareness.

In fact, they’re helping with the Rivers Alive cleanup next month. You can have fun, do good and learn. Picking up trash along the banks or from out on a kayak can be an eye-opening experience. You’ll be surprised how much there is! It’s very gratifying to help, so I encourage everyone to come check it out on Oct. 6, starting at 9 a.m. at Dudley Park. For more information, go to

The river gives us so many benefits, serving as an energy source and recreation center. We need to work to ensure that this valuable resource, even in the face of progress, remains available for future Athenians to enjoy, not to mention those living downstream.

Development does pose a threat. We must continue to push for large enough buffer zones to protect rivers from polluting runoff. As for industrial development and factories that require river water use, we must proceed with extreme caution and be vigilant in keeping a watchful eye on their activities. Who wants to go swimming in neon blue water laced with formaldehyde?

Earlier this year, when everyone was up in arms about the potential downtown Walmart and its effects on the economic impact of the surrounding area, my main concern was how it might impact the nearby Oconee. That section of the river is already stressed. More sediment, fertilizer, oil and anything else that a big rainstorm can carry away would damage a struggling ecosystem even further.

Of course, some disruption is bound to happen with any development, but the more of a buffer zone of natural vegetation remains, the more pollutants the soil can catch and break down before they contaminate our water. Athens-Clarke County requires at most a 100 foot riparian buffer zone (150 feet for protected streams in industrial zones), but this still allows a large amount of sedimentation any time a big storm rolls through. If we were to increase the zone to, say, 150 feet, we would see 15 percent less sediment in our waterways, according to a University of Florida study.

Waterfront communities face the sticky situation of protecting the ecosystem while also creating opportunities for residents to embrace their environment. I’ve always favored developments on the Gulf Coast that are set back from the water but have a boardwalk over and through the natural terrain. They give patrons a chance to stroll through a habitat that is usually developed without excessive disruption. This enhances their dining experience which, in turn, benefits the nearby restaurants and shops. Athens, too, must find its way to embrace our Oconee—spending time outdoors, strengthening our sense of community, keeping our river clean.

This weekend, explore a park. Chances are, you’ll hit a creek or even the grand Oconee itself and have the pleasure of observing schools of sunfish and listening to the trickling on the rocks. If you can, pick up some litter. Let’s do our part to keep the river clean and, as a community, when pursuing development, let’s do so responsibly.