Reporting results: Two decades of grantmaking improved rivers, strengthened environmental groups in the Southeastern U.S.

Atlanta, Georgia — Sally Bethea wasn’t an expert on streamflow when she started the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper organization in 1994. She initially set out to reduce the volume of sewage and polluted stormwater that communities in metro Atlanta discharged into the river.

That changed in the late 1990s, when rapid growth and a series of crippling droughts spawned efforts to build new reservoirs on the Chattahoochee and other rivers in Georgia. The proposed reservoirs, which would have reduced streamflow in rivers already strained by population growth and increased withdrawals, prompted Bethea to expand her group’s focus — to work on water quality and water quantity issues.

“Georgia politicians thought they could ‘drought-proof’ northern Georgia by building new dams and reservoirs on the Chattahoochee and other rivers,” Bethea said. “We had to do a lot of education because a lot of people, myself included, didn’t realize that clean water isn’t enough for a healthy river ecosystem. There has to be enough clean water in the river, especially at certain times of the year.”

Two young women are paddling a canoe through smaller river rapids and in between large boulders.

The Georgia Water Coalition’s annual Paddle Georgia event attracts a diverse group of participants.
Photo: Joe Cook/Georgia Water Coalition

Two decades later, per capita water use in Atlanta has decreased despite continued population growth, several costly reservoirs have been scrapped, and the discussion about how to manage the region’s strained water resources has fundamentally changed. Bethea said the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation played a key role in driving those changes.

Mott began supporting Bethea’s group in 1999 and, over the course of two decades, provided the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper organization with $2 million in grants. Bethea credits Lois DeBacker, who directed Mott’s Environment Program in the 1990s, as a driving force behind the work.

That funding was part of Mott’s larger effort to strengthen protections for freshwater ecosystems in the Southeastern United States, improve water policies and build the capacity of environmental advocacy groups in the region. The six-state area where Mott provided funding, which encompassed Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, is one of the most biologically diverse regions on Earth.

Over the course of 20 years, the Foundation provided a total of $35 million to 50 different grantees working on freshwater issues. Mott focused on the Southeast because the region’s freshwater resources weren’t adequately protected in the 1990s by existing laws or regulatory agencies, and local environmental groups lacked support from national funders, said Sam Passmore, director of Mott’s Environment Program.

“Our grantmaking was designed to help communities and policymakers in the region find a healthier balance between growth and the conservation of natural resources,” Passmore said. “Many parts of the Southeast experienced a growth surge in the 1990s, and the resulting development and increased demand for water posed serious threats to freshwater resources in the region.”

Passmore said Mott grantees working in the region achieved several major victories over the course of two decades, some of which had national ramifications.

  • Mott grantees helped develop Georgia’s first statewide water management plan and streamflow protection policy; they also shifted the focus of water management efforts from building costly reservoirs to using water more efficiently.
  • Mott grantees helped metropolitan Atlanta reduce its overall water use, which increased streamflow in the Chattahoochee and other rivers.
  • Mott grantees helped develop a new operating license for 13 hydropower dams on the Catawba-Wateree River, which crosses North and South Carolina. The license required operational changes at the dams, which will improve streamflow, restore fish and wildlife habitat and create new recreational opportunities along 300 miles of the river.
  • In southern Louisiana, state and federal agencies agreed to adopt a more environmentally friendly approach to preventing coastal flooding, restoring wetlands and slowing land loss in the Mississippi River delta.
  • The Louisiana Environmental Action Network helped persuade a chemical company to stop using mercury in its manufacturing processes, which ended the firm’s practice of discharging the neurotoxin into local waterways.
  • As part of British Petroleum’s settlement over the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Mott grantees helped secure $5.3 billion in company funds for coastal restoration work in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
  • The Alabama Rivers Alliance persuaded a federal court to reject a relicensing permit for seven harmful hydropower dams on the globally significant Coosa River.
  • American Rivers’ advocacy resulted in a new national policy protecting rivers that have been impaired by dams, water withdrawals and other forms of streamflow alteration. The groundbreaking policy arose from a Mott-sponsored workshop on how to better protect streamflow through the federal Clean Water Act.

Cyn Sarthou, executive director of the Louisiana-based Gulf Restoration Network, said Mott helped her organization develop a strategic plan that enabled the group to increase membership, develop partnerships with organizations across five states and tackle more issues along the Gulf Coast. As a result, Sarthou said, the organization was positioned to respond effectively to the BP oil spill.

“When the spill happened, we were already working with scientists and legal experts who could determine what we needed to be doing,” Sarthou said. “We also brought together a coalition of diverse groups to respond to the disaster, which allowed us to play a role that other groups could not.”

Long-term funding for environmental groups working in the Southeast was critical to their success, said Gil Rogers, an attorney who directs the Southern Environmental Law Center’s work in Georgia and Alabama.

“All of our victories came about after years of legal work,” Rogers said. “Mott was extremely helpful on this front because the Foundation recognized that this kind of work is long term, incremental and requires sustained support.”

Armed with long-term funding from Mott and other foundations, environmental groups in the region formed influential coalitions, began working with nontraditional partners — including farmers, conservatives and entrenched government agencies — and used the law, science and grassroots organizing to strengthen protections for rivers, lakes and groundwater.

“We’ve seen a remarkable change in how water management issues are discussed in the Southeast and who is involved in those discussions,” said Gerrit Jobsis, a senior director at American Rivers. “In the 1980s and 1990s, there was little public involvement in those discussions.”

The Georgia Water Coalition, which was established in 2002 with funding from Mott and the Georgia-based Sapelo Foundation, played a key role in many of those changes, according to an independent evaluation. Launched by four organizations, the coalition had 256 member groups in 2018.

“The Georgia Water Coalition is an exceptional leader on critically important water issues within the state of Georgia and the Southeastern region,” said Beth Milliman, an independent environmental consultant who assessed the organization’s work for Mott. “In a time of divisiveness and political polarization, the Coalition stands as an example of how people with different backgrounds and viewpoints can agree and work together on shared concerns.”

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