Perspectives on the Shutdown: Flint Riverkeeper - Waterkeeper

Perspectives on the Shutdown: Flint Riverkeeper

By: Guest Contributor

By Hannah Palmer. Originally published on Finding the Flint. Reposted with permission from Flint Riverkeeper.

Perhaps like us, you’ve been wondering about how the coronavirus shutdown is affecting the natural world, water resources, infrastructure, and the work of environmental advocates. We reached out to some experts in the Finding the Flint Working Group to see what they are noticing during these weeks of cancelled meetings, work-from-home experimentation, and quiet time outdoors.

Flint Riverkeeper is a nonprofit advocacy organization that serves as the watchdog for the river, actively patrolling the watershed, collecting water quality data, and attending public hearings to represent the concerns of affected citizens and the environment. Gordon Rogers became the Executive Director in 2009. A native of South Georgia, a veteran Georgia DNR marine biologist and analyst, a professional fisherman, and a gifted storyteller, he is the ideal voice of the Flint. This time of year, we would normally see Gordon on one of our group paddling trips near Sprewell Bluff. Instead, I called him at his house in Talbot County.

How are you? What are your days like at Flint Riverkeeper right now?

I’m great. Our family is healthy. I live by scripture that says fear does not come from the Spirit of God. However, the City of Albany has taken a physical and psychological hit. Because of its history of (decades ago) racial strife, natural disasters from the floods in ’94 and ’98, major losses of manufacturing jobs, major tornado and spring storm damage few years ago, and most recently Hurricane Michael, Albany already had a legitimate case of PTSD. The COVID-19 storm has without doubt added to that, but the community is very resilient. My family and staff are mostly great. Those that are not having a great day, I invite them to look at their blessings and then compare to what it could be.

At Flint Riverkeeper, there’s not a lot of difference in how we’re operating today than in January. So much of what we do besides fundraising—the programmatic work—it is done by one or two people at a time. In the field, we’re already wearing protective gear around allegedly nasty water. A lot of our water quality monitoring work has continued with a few adjustments. In our volunteer network, Adopt-a-Stream, we originally had some concerns so we shut it down for a little while. Now we’re just really encouraging people to wear protective gear. For me personally, it was a blessing to suddenly not have to go to the legislature. I’m required to be there in my role, but it’s not the most comfortable place to work.

As far as the fundraising work… the economy (in addition to your long-term reputation) controls what foundations and donors are going to do. So, the coronavirus affects people’s ability to fund and give. A third of our income is based on events—floats, the Knobby Knees music festival, auctions, sit down dinners, house parties. Suddenly, we can’t have them. You can socially distance on the water, but what about meals and shuttles? The logistics are intractable. Even with the SBA’s payroll protection program, we still have a $60-70K hole and we’re having to get creative with virtual events to figure out how to plug that hole.

Typically, my days are filled with being at the computer or on the road for meetings anywhere from Atlanta to Bainbridge. I spend a lot of time in a vehicle and that has ceased for now. Gina and I have had more time to enjoy the outdoors this Spring. Right this minute, if you could see what I’m looking at you would say, “Gordon, why do you ever leave that place?” I’m two miles from the river in Talbot County. I’m leaning on my pickup truck and I see three kayaks, two barns, and field full of purple and yellow flowers with the woods in the background.

In comparison to the inconvenience and intense suffering that many people are experiencing, this social isolation has been a very freeing experience for me. Many people are dealing with loneliness, family loss, job stress, job-loss stress, or even all of the above. My experience is certainly not everyone’s.

What have you noticed about how the coronavirus shutdown is affecting the river?

My personal observation is that more people are getting out on the river and that’s kind of a cool thing. A good friend of mine reports to me that the same thing is also happening on the Georgia coast. There are more folks out on the river than I’ve seen the past 11 years, and not just on weekends, but also on weekdays and in places where I’ve never seen them before.

There’s been a profound, measurable difference in air quality, but I haven’t read or personally seen anything that would indicate changes in water quality. When a manufacturing facility like a poultry processor or a paper mill shuts down, it’s going to affect water quality in some way. But we don’t have litter meters out there or comprehensive testing for oils and turbidity and other pollutants in the river. Nothing like the way air quality is monitored consistently.

Do you think these changes are temporary?

Yes. I think that in Georgia, there are river people and there are not river people. I think that people want to be on the river a lot and that this situation has allowed them to do that. There may be a few visitors now that have never been before. We all have more opportunity. In my family, we’re fishing junkies and I’ve lost count of the number of fishing trips I’ve been on since this shutdown started, both to the ponds near the house when the river was too high and to the river when it was in good shape. When the economy cranks back up, there will be less of that. People will be busier.

For me personally, fishing time is directly proportional to the time I have to spend on the road. The same goes for air quality. Once the economy cranks back up, air quality will go back down. This period of time is like an experiment—with air quality, water quality, and river traffic. It allows us to examine ways to alter our behavior even when the economy is back.

Any silver linings that we should try to preserve? 

More intentional time with family. In my family, we’ve found new ways to stay connected. My extended family has been doing vespers every Sunday night by Zoom, including family in Virginia, California, Philadelphia, and spread all over Georgia. The vespers have become important to all of us as a weekly routine, not just those who are lonely and isolated. Bringing all these people together has been magical. We should keep that going.

It is a silver lining that, as a society, we are grappling with questions about our core values like, how do we manage freedom? This generation did not have to live through the Great Depression, WWII, or the depths of the Cold War. This is the crisis of our generation and we will be defined by how we deal with it. This pandemic is a challenge in and of itself, but it also takes two ongoing crises, climate change and economic injustice, and wraps all those issues into it like a tornado. The silver lining is that we are allowed the opportunity learn and adapt, something we are allowed to all of the time, but we are reminded of it in stark relief.

How can we help?

The importance of Finding the Flint is raising awareness that the river up there, in the headwaters around the airport and nearby, matters. Why does it matter? It used to be part of people’s lives directly, over time it became ditches and pipes that just got rid of waste. It can be part of people’s lives again.

Not to say that getting rid of waste is not an important function of rivers. That’s an odd thing for a Riverkeeper to say, but our water infrastructure plays an incredibly important public health function. People keep saying this epidemic is unprecedented. It is not. Water-borne disease was a real threat and danger not so long ago, and water-waste disposal systems were designed to reduce and eliminate diseases like cholera. So, still today our lives depend on how we manage water resources including using rivers and creeks in a responsible way to both get water from for drinking and to get rid of wastes.

Continue to bring attention to the multiple services that these creeks and rivers bring to us that the general public completely ignores. Keep turning people’s attention to the fact that these creeks and rivers have the potential to be recreational and cultural assets, increasing and preserving property values on top of their water-supply and waste-elimination function. They are already valued this way in other parts of the watershed, why shouldn’t they be in the airport area?

What we’re doing is evangelism. Keep bringing people under the tent, one at a time.

Feature image: Rogers paddles the “sweep” or last canoe of a group float in Upson County, Georgia in May 2019.