SAVING THE SOUTH RIVER
Richard Milligan sees beauty and potential in a polluted metro Atlanta waterway.
When Richard Milligan paddles the South River, he sees beauty in a place where others focus on a waterway marked by signs warning people not to swim or fish.
“The South River encourages us to confront the kind of myths of environmental thought going back to colonialism — this idea that it’s worth saving and valuable if it’s pristine and pure and ‘awesome,’” said Milligan, an assistant professor of geography who specializes in environmental justice.
“Pristine is a word that is attached to what is ‘good quality environment.’ If it’s impacted and has things changing it because of human life, then it’s basically considered a waste.”
For Milligan, the polluted South River is an example of an urban artery worth protecting and restoring.
The South River stretches more than 63 miles from its headwaters just north of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to Jackson Lake, where it merges with the Yellow and Alcovy rivers. The combined waters leave Jackson Lake as the Ocmulgee River and eventually flow into the Altamaha River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
Along many stretches of the South River, especially in Fulton and DeKalb counties, sewage overflows and industrial waste have damaged the water quality.
But Milligan sees a place that could once again attract nature-lovers, a place where animals such as beavers, turtles, herons, sandpipers, barred owl, indigo bunting and common yellowthroat are making their home. The threatened species of Swainson’s warbler and rivercane, Georgia’s only native bamboo, thrive along the river’s banks in DeKalb County.
“Finding value and still seeing the impacts of a city like Atlanta on a river is a good exercise,” Milligan said of the South River. “Does it mean it’s not thriving and rich despite all the impact? No. It’s a really impressive instance of resilience.”
Milligan is drawing from his love of rivers and research expertise, partnering with fellow geoscientists Ellis Adams, Jeremy Diem and Luke Pangle for a three-year study of the South River watershed in DeKalb County. Their goal is to understand how infrastructure and the natural environment interact in urban watersheds. They hope to share lessons that can be applied to urban environments across the United States.
In DeKalb County, stormwater routinely overwhelms the wastewater system, causing sewage overflows into creeks and streams that drain toward the South River. DeKalb is spending more than $1 billion to revitalize its sanitary sewer system as part of a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Georgia Environmental Protection Division. The 10-year reassessment deadline for the agreement approaches in 2020. For many, the worst-case scenario would be a moratorium on new sewage connections which would stop development in the fourth most populated county in Georgia.
“Knowledge from this study could help the EPA enforce its decree as well as provide useful information to help DeKalb catch up,” Milligan said.
Milligan has spent most of his life preparing for this kind of work.
Raised in south Georgia’s Coffee County, where the Ocmulgee River forms the northern border, he has been drawn to the state’s waterways since a canoeing trip in high school.
After college, he and a few friends set out to canoe every river system in Georgia from headwater to coast, taking water and vegetation samples and notes on every bird they saw or heard along the way. The South River was among the 10 they traveled.
Since then, Milligan has continued exploring Georgia’s 70,000-mile network of rivers and streams. He spends many of his weekends volunteering with organizations like the Upper Oconee Watershed Network, the South River Watershed Alliance, the Altamaha Riverkeeper and the Georgia River Network.
As a young researcher, Milligan said he was struck by the lack of diversity he saw at conferences, and he wrote his doctoral dissertation on racial disparities in environmental governance.
The South River is an example of environmental injustice, revealing ways in which the legacy of segregation continues to harm people in the present. Demographic maps illustrate how DeKalb’s racial boundaries follow the county’s sub-continental divide, with majority-black neighborhoods falling in the South River watershed.
“The whole sweep of racial forces that structure our cities is included in this correspondence between majority black, highly segregated neighborhoods and highly impacted creeks, streams and rivers,” Milligan said. “There’s disproportionate exposure for people of color to the slow violence of pollution and also the barriers and exclusions to the world of environmental decision making.”
Milligan has partnered with fellow Georgia State geosciences professors Sarah Ledford and Pangle to encourage students to participate in internships with organizations working on water issues. He said he wants the next generation of water scientists to be more diverse and better equipped to navigate the environmental, racial and economic issues affecting water quality.
“Our students are right in the middle of that diversifying movement,” Milligan said.