Origins of WWALS and Suwannee Riverkeeper Part 1

People are often confused: what are WWALS and Suwannee Riverkeeper, where did they come from, how are they related, and what do they do?

Well, it’s a long story. Here is the first of several parts.

[Black and white square WWALS and Suwannee Riverkeeper logos]
Black and white square WWALS and Suwannee Riverkeeper logos

You’ll probably see this reposted on Walk Around Lowndes:

Justin Coleman is walking every road and street in Lowndes County, Georgia, and blogging about it, featuring Suwannee Riverkeeper.

What is the mission of WWALS?

The Vision of WWALS Watershed Coalition, Inc. (WWALS) is: A healthy watershed with clean, swimmable, fishable, drinkable water.

The Mission of WWALS is to advocate for conservation and stewardship of the surface waters and groundwater of the Suwannee River Basin and Estuary, in south Georgia and north Florida, among them the Withlacoochee, Willacoochee, Alapaha, Little, Santa Fe, and Suwannee River watersheds, through education, awareness, environmental monitoring, and citizen activities.

See also WWALS 2023 Goals:

For more about what WWALS is doing to achieve these goals, see WWALS Accomplishments.

What was the origin of WWALS?

The roots of WWALS run deep in many counties in Georgia and Florida:

  • Lowndes and Brooks Counties, GA, through flooding on the Withlacoochee River and its creeks, sewage, and energy issues and Lowndes Area Knowledge Exchange (LAKE), as well as pipeline issues on the Withlacoochee River;
  • Tift County, GA, through water table, agriculture, and energy issues and Water Matters;
  • Lanier County, GA, through river access issues about the Alapaha River;
  • Hamilton and Madison Counties, FL, through sewage, pipeline, outings, and agriculture;
  • Suwannee County, FL, through agriculture and pipeline issues on the Suwannee River;
  • Gilchrist and Columbia Counties, FL, through pipeline issues on the Santa Fe River;
  • and eventually the entire 10,000-square-mile Suwannee River Basin and Estuary in Florida and Georgia.

But first, the beginnings.

Wasn’t it about sewage spills?

That was one of many reasons. In 2009 (and again in 2013) south Georgia had a 700-year flood, in which Valdosta’s Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) was completely underwater, and many manholes overflowed into the river. Most of the water came from upstream, and complaints echoed all the way down the Suwannee River to the Gulf of Mexico.

This was not a 700-year rain event; the problem was caused by too much clearcutting and impervious surface, causing rain to run off, and by the unfortunate location of the WWTP.

John and Gretchen Quarterman, Carolyn Selby, Barbara Stratton, and others in Lowndes County, GA, through Lowndes Area Knowledge Exchange (LAKE) noticed and blogged that the WWTP was in a flood plain, that clearcutting and impervious cover had caused much of the flooding, and that some bridges were closed that shouldn’t have been, because of deadfalls and finger-pointing between the county and state.

Who else was involved?

In Tift County, Bret Wagenhorst has been organizing free paddle trips on the region’s blackwater rivers, cypress lakes and swamps for around two decades, to educate folks from all over the region, the country and the world about the beauty and biology of the local rivers. Folks from as far away as California, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Norway, Russia, Spain, and Switzerland have been introduced to area waterways through these outings. He has organized annual cleanups affiliated with Georgia Rivers Alive on the Alapaha and Little Rivers for at least the past 10 years, getting local organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Keep Tift Beautiful involved in helping to remove trash from along these waterways and tried to build grassroots support for regional waterway advocacy.

In 2010, also in Tift County, Dave Hetzel, Helen Rogers, and Karen Hendrix started a group called Water Matters and held a symposium to address the dropping water table due to agricultural use, land-use practices in towns and fields, and energy generation, and also had speakers talk about the value of waterway based eco-tourism to rural economies.

What about Suwannee Riverkeeper?

Several of us noticed there was no Riverkeeper, and the biggest population centers in the entire Suwannee River Basin are Valdosta and Tifton, and Lowndes and Tift Counties, GA. Lake City, FL, is third in population among cities completely within the Basin. Gainesville, FL, is not in the Suwannee River Basin. See WWALS Counties and Cities:

In 2010 Leeann Culbreath of Tifton and Janisse Ray, now of Reidsville, (a founder of Altamaha Riverkeeper) held the first South Georgia Growing Local conference in Tifton. Those became annual, with a series in Lowndes County organized by Gretchen Quarterman, most recently in January 2017.

At a local food gathering about 2010, the Quartermans encountered Janisse Ray and Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers and asked them how hard it is to form a Riverkeeper. They answered, “It’s easy!”

Six years later, we applied for a license for Suwannee Riverkeeper and got it. Stay tuned for that in a later part.

Why is WWALS called a Coalition?

It’s called a Coalition because of the many origin stories that came together, and more that joined later.

In 2012 bi-weekly meetings to form a water group started in Adel, quickly drawing many of the above-mentioned people plus Garry Gentry from Tifton. After gathering enough contributions from attendees to pay an attorney, in June 2012 WWALS Watershed Coalition (WWALS) incorporated, with first president Dave Hetzel.

The first speaker at the early monthly board meetings was the Stormwater Manager for the City of Valdosta. Helen Rogers handed the Tifton Water Matters membership list over to WWALS before she moved away. Lowndes Area Knowledge Exchange (LAKE) continues, with Gretchen Quarterman videoing and speaking at Valdosta City Council and Lowndes County Commission and Planning Commission meetings. WWALS uses those videos about coal ash, sewage, and other water issues. In 2016 WWALS helped Leeann Culbreath organize coal ash meetings in Tifton and Valdosta to help Georgia Water Coalition.

WWALS quickly applied to the IRS to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, and a year later the IRS granted that, retroactive to June 2012.

Stay tuned for Part 2, about energy, river access, pipelines, and agriculture.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

You can help with clean, swimmable, fishable, drinkable, water in the 10,000-square-mile Suwannee River Basin in Florida and Georgia by becoming a WWALS member today!