Once polluted, the Yellow River in Porterdale is now a local recreational amenity and tourist attraction.
On Saturday, May 17, kayakers of all ages and skill levels are are expected to descend on Porterdale for a paddle along the Yellow River, which flows through the city. As part of the Mellow on the Yellow summer paddle series, local volunteers will meet the kayakers and provide information about Adopt-A-Stream, water quality, river history and water trail development. They will also serve as guides.
While the benefit of being a city adjacent to a waterway can clearly be seen in Porterdale today, only a few years ago the Yellow River was more of a liability that an asset for the city.
“It was polluted,” said Porterdale Mayor Arline Chapman. “It was not being used.”
“The river was at one time, literally a dumping ground,” added Tonya Beckler, chairman and public outreach coordinator for the Yellow River Water Trail Nonprofit. “Wastewater would flow into it and people would dump trash and refrigerators in the river…we have found everything in there.”
Chapman said a call from a group of kayakers sparked an effort that has transformed the Yellow River into a recreational amenity and economic benefit to the city.
“A group of people wanted to use the river for kayaking,” she explained. “They wanted to use the city as their home base. They came down here and started the Yak Club (kayak rental facility). It has been one of the driving forces towards building our recreational facilities.”
The city successfully applied for a Department of Natural Resources recreational trails grant and is using the grant proceeds to construct a kayak ramp, which is scheduled to be open in June. The city will use the balance of the grant to pave the trail along the river. “The new ramp will make the river more easily accessible for people of all ages and abilities,” said City Manager Bob Thomson. “The paved trail will allow people in wheelchairs or with baby strollers to use it; we want to make the trail accessible for everyone.” Beckler said the Yellow River runs 53 miles through four counties; she called Porterdale the roots of the movement to have all 53 miles clean and accessible.
“Porterdale recognizes they are a tourism destination,” she said. “They have been investing time, resources and money into the effort.” She noted that for two years, the city allowed the Yak Club to use space in the city’s historic depot for no charge, and now the club is flourishing, paying rent and helping to attract outdoor enthusiasts to the city. In addition to the walking trail, the city helped to establish a 10-mile water trail that is appropriate for all skill levels and families.
“In Porterdale, I see boats on the back of cars and families on the weekend. Our couple of years of focus is starting to grow and it’s exciting.”
Today, Chapman said, the river is a huge asset and a gift. “Some of the business we hope to attract to Porterdale will feed off that river,” she said.
Rivers are Again Economic Development Tools
Like Porterdale, many Georgia cities were founded along waterways and for decades the waterways served as a major economic development tool for those cities. As times changed, however, rivers in Georgia cities were often forgotten.
“Back during the days the city was established, the river had a big economic impact on the city,” said Lumber City Mayor Sue Sammons. “The river served as a mode of transportation….people would transport goods by barges and riverboats. Then the railroad came through, and the intersection of the river and railroad had a big impact. Times changed and the merchants started leaning more on the railroad.”
A state grant helped to put the Ocmulgee River in Lumber City in use for recreational purposes.
“We did some work on the public landing in conjunction with the grant,” Sammons explained. “Now people spend time using the river, they go to our local businesses to buy fish bait, snacks and gasoline. Access to the river has definitely helped sustain the city.”
Thanks to recent efforts by several Georgia cities, including Hawkinsville, St. Marys, Columbus and Darien, and programs by organizations such as the Yellow River Trail Network, Georgia River Network and the Georgia Conservancy, there is a heightened awareness of Georgia’s rivers and people now have more access to enjoy the beauty and peace the rivers offer.
“Our Stewardship Trips program provides a robust adventure and service program that leads 30 plus trips a year,” said Georgia Conservancy Communications Director Brian Foster. “We started the trips about three years ago with a focus on south and central rivers. Many had been forgotten about. Noted trips include the Ocmulgee River Paddle in Hawkinsville, the Altamaha River to Sea Paddle in Darien, the Flint River at Montezuma Bluff Paddle in Montezuma and Oglethorpe and the Three Rivers Paddle in Lumber City and Hazlehurst.
“The recreational value these rivers offer to nearby communities translates to an economic value as outdoor enthusiasts such as paddlers, birders, photographers and fishermen travel to access the waterways and others such as hikers and cyclists might utilize trails alongside them,” explained Katherine Moore, sustainable growth program manager for the Georgia Conservancy. “But, only when there is a physical connection between the water asset and the community. The design decisions communities made in the past and are making now as they eye redevelopment, will absolutely determine whether or not an adjacent waterway truly becomes an asset for a community.”
Moore advises cities that want to leverage the value of their adjacent waterways to ensure buildings face the waterways and the town’s network of blocks and streets provide views and physical access to the waterways.
“People are much more likely to be good stewards of natural assets when they see them and utilize them regularly,” she said. “The ‘out of sight, out of mind’ adage definitely applies to whether or not residents appreciate their waterways.”
Cities interested in river restoration can also call on the Georgia River Network for assistance.
“We empower groups throughout the state, generally watershed groups or cities and counties that are interested in having a water trail developed in their area,” said Gwyneth Moody, Community Programs coordinator for the Georgia River Network. “We can provide technical assistance including helping with initial planning, signage, marketing, [boat] launch design and community partnerships. I worked with the city of Porterdale and the Yellow River Trail Network for a year. They have done a tremendous job getting the community involved to help protect the river. We awarded the Yellow River Trail Network, Network of the Year this year.”
Moody added that gawatertrails.org offers a bevy of information and a toolkit to help cities develop water trails.