Northsiders to Know: Jason Ulseth
Our River’s Keeper
written by JENNIFER COLOSIMO | photography courtesy of JASON ULSETH
WHEN YOU MEET JASON Ulseth, it’s immediately evident you’ve come face-to-face with a true outdoorsman – and he won’t deny it. In fact, he’ll regale you with stories from driving around The University of Georgia’s campus as the only guy with a canoe strapped to his roof. That made it easier to throw a few lines in between classes, or get down to the river before the crowd. He’ll go back even further, recounting weekends in his childhood spending, as he put it, “any possible minute I could,” along the Chattahoochee River, trout fishing and boating with his dad.
Now, with a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences and a greater knowledge of his impact on the river, he still enjoys it with his own family – albeit intermittently, as now his interactions include regularly testing, continually monitoring, patrolling and protecting it. Life on the river is no longer just a hobby, it’s his job. He’s the Riverkeeper.
Ulseth assumed the role at the end of 2014, after nearly five years working for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission.
“It was a great introduction into the world of environmental protection,” Ulseth said. “But I learned how underfunded and understaffed those agencies are, making them very inefficient at doing their job, which is protecting the environment.”
Ulseth was constantly coming in contact with people working at Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (CRK), and saw firsthand how effective the nonprofit organization could be without the restraints of funding, resources and red tape. He was very impressed and in 2007, jumped at the chance to fill the role of Technical Programs Director, allowing him to run all of the organization’s water-quality monitoring and enforcement type programs. The Riverkeeper and Executive Director, at the time, was the founder Sally Bethea. At the end of 2014, as the CRK celebrated its 20th anniversary, Bethea retired. The organization split her duties – it had grown quite a bit since 1994, when it was “just Sally and her canoe” – and Ulseth became the new Riverkeeper.
Under his new title, his to-do list included much more than fieldwork. It now meant he would be the lead advocate for the river when it came to battling big businesses and correcting consumers’ bad habits on a state-wide level, all in pursuit of preserving the Riverkeeper’s mission of protecting the Chattahoochee River and securing enough water for current and future generations.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the Chattahoochee River is one of the smallest rivers in the country to supply water to a major metro area,” Ulseth said. “So, it’s important for people to establish their own connection with the river [and] better understand what changes they can make to help the cause.”
That cause includes improving and maintaining both the quality and quantity of water in the river. I learned that “flushables” aren’t necessarily all biodegradable, and that washing ice cream or salad dressing down the sink is just as bad as emptying leftover grease into the same drain. It all goes to the sewer, and when that gets backed up, it spills into the river.
And, whether I get my hands wet or not, 80 percent of my life is a result of the Chattahoochee River. To illustrate further, he explained that every time I run the faucet, take a shower or water the yard, it uses water from “the Hooch.” That’s the water I drink, so what happens if it runs out?
Yet consumer habits are not even the biggest worry for the Riverkeeper.
“The largest source of pollution in the watershed is storm-water runoff,” Ulseth said. “When it rains, it washes all of the pollutants that accumulate on our driveways, parking lots and industrial construction areas into the river. We work hard to educate and address all the different industrial facilities throughout the watershed.”
One way they do that is through state laws that govern what businesses have to do with the runoff. The CRK is part of a stakeholder group negotiating the terms of new laws that will go into effect later this year.
The long-term vision is for all of the waterways within the Chattahoochee River basin to meet all water-quality standards – simply, to be fishable, swimmable and drinkable. That’s going to take a lot more monitoring and regulating, but as Ulseth said, it’s leaps and bounds from where it was 20 years ago. Since then, nearly $2 billion has been invested in sewer infrastructure and the river is significantly cleaner than it has been in a very long time. Of course, Ulseth and his team know there is still a long way to go.
Beyond courtroom deals and enforcing new standards, they lead on-the-water classrooms that teach young children about how their daily habits affect rivers and lakes. Fundraisers help support the efforts of testing, cleanup and maintenance, while hundreds of volunteers make it possible to keep tabs on almost the entire length of The Chattahoochee – from a tiny stream near Helen all the way to the Apalachicola Bay on the Florida panhandle.
With a footprint like that, I can’t wait to get my hands (and feet) wet.
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