Coosa Riverkeepers: The Watchdog for a Threatened Alabama Waterway

As early settlers were trying to gain control of Mobile Bay, they called the Coosa River “the key to the country.”
As early settlers were trying to gain control of Mobile Bay, they called the Coosa River “the key to the country.” Eric Atkins
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Stretching 280 miles from northwest Georgia to east-central Alabama, the Coosa River has long been a major transportation corridor and economic engine. When early explorers entered America through Mobile Bay, they used the Coosa River to access the county’s interior. In the 1700s, French explorers called the Coosa River “the key to the country.” By the 1800s, the Coosa had also become an important transportation route for Steamboats carrying cotton.

In the 1920s, efforts began to impound several sections of the Coosa River to generate electricity and create recreation areas. Over the course of several decades, the Coosa became one of the most developed waterways in Alabama.

While the impoundments have increased the quality of life for Alabamians, they have also changed the ecology of the river, its tributaries, and watershed, which have historically been rich in biodiversity. Dozens of species of fish have been killed, and the water quality has deteriorated to the point that at times people can’t swim in the Coosa safely or eat the fish they catch in the river.

Fortunately, dedicated individuals in Alabama have joined together and formed a group to defend the river and the Coosa River Valley. Established in 2010, the nonprofit organization Coosa Riverkeepers monitors the health of the river, advocates for its protection, and educates the public on river conditions and ways to conserve this natural resource.

Humble Beginnings

Several years ago, the nonprofit American Rivers listed the Coosa River as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the United States. Along the entire length of the Coosa, the river faced severe threats from overdevelopment, sewage spills, and coal-burning power plants.

That announcement by American Rivers in 2010 spurred a group of environmental leaders in Alabama to form a watchdog group to “protect, promote, and restore” the Coosa River. From a small mini-storage warehouse on Logan Martin Lake, Coosa Riverkeepers was born, and since that time the organization has become a powerful voice and advocate for protecting the river, nearby lakes and creeks, and the people who use the waterway.

The Work of the Coosa Riverkeepers

From those humble beginnings, the Coosa Riverkeepers and its hundreds of members have established four core programs to protect the watershed—education and outreach, the organization’s Fish Guide, its Riverkeeper Patrol, and the Coosa River Swim Guide.

“We launched the Coosa River Swim Guide program because so many families along the Coosa were asking if it was safe to swim,” says Justinn Overton, executive director of Coosa Riverkeepers. Members of the organization test the quality of the water along the river and use social media, text messages, and the Coosa Riverkeepers website to provide the public test results and warnings about unsafe conditions.

“Our Swim Guide program is nationally and internationally recognized for excellence in field practices, lab techniques, quality assurance, and public engagement,” says Overton, adding that it was immediately popular with communities along the river.

Another popular program is the Fish Guide, which informs the public of Coosa River fish that are contaminated with heavy metals and other pollutants and not safe to consume. Plus, the guide offers tips on good fishing spots and ways to prepare fish for meals.

While the organization manages several programs, its overall priority is to change attitudes, says Overton.

“The most pressing issue is one of respect for the river,” she says. “Environmental laws that are on the books are not being respected by polluters or regulators. Basic stewardship principles are not being respected by many members of our community. Every specific pollution issue that we are facing traces its roots back to a lack of respect for the value of water, our rivers, and the vital role they play in our survival, recreation, and economy.”

Volunteer Opportunities and Programs

Although Coosa Riverkeepers has hundreds of volunteers, the organization can always use more helping hands. Its Citizen Scientists program provides opportunities for the young and old to monitor the river by collecting data on water levels and the temperature and color of the water.

“To become one of our Citizen Scientists, all you need is access to a dock where you can take temperature readings and a smartphone to upload your data,” says Overton.

Members of the public can also participate in the Riverkeeper Patrol Program. “The most important step of reporting pollution or fishy situations is taking pictures and sending them to us,” says Overton. If you’re interested in supporting the Riverkeeper Patrol Program, you can easily report pollution on the organization’s website.

And it’s not only individuals that volunteer or make donations. Corporations such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama are also helping to monitor the Coosa. Since 2016, the BCBS Caring Foundation has provided grant money to support the Riverkeepers Swim and Fish Guide programs.

To volunteer for Coosa Riverkeepers programs or to learn about additional opportunities, visit the group’s volunteer page online.

Another Way to Help the Cause

The work of Coosa Riverkeepers goes beyond just monitoring the river and its tributaries. The group also protects the waterway through advocacy and litigation, which cost money. By becoming a member, you will play an important role in defending the watershed.

“Riverkeepers are some of the only people out on the river not beholden to a government budget or shareholders,” says Overton. “So we ask people to join us in our fight for a swimmable and fishable Coosa River. Being a member of Coosa Riverkeepers isn’t just a donation, it’s an investment in clean swimming holes and fishing holes in the Coosa Valley of Alabama. Membership gives us strength in numbers when defending the Coosa.”

To become a member or volunteer, visit CoosaRiver.org.

Written by Joe Cuhaj for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.

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