Greenway path a river of debris
June 17, 2005
By Blake Aued
The North Oconee Greenway is known as a place where Athenians can enjoy
nature while never leaving the city.
But take a closer look. That steep hill studded with granite outcroppings?
They're actually old chunks of curb and concrete slabs. The log fallen
into a path? A railroad cross-tie. The pile of vines snaking through
the trees? An engine block is hiding underneath.
For more than a century, the river served as a dumping ground for all
manner of trash, waste and debris. Tons of it piled up over the years,
first from industries along the river, then from lazy builders as the
"What we did was we used our river as a dumping ground," said
Mike Wharton, administrator of Athens-Clarke County's natural resources
lost site of its beauty and its essential qualities. It's essential to
For the past two years, Wharton and others who work on the miles of
trails along the river that make up the greenway have been picking up
that's been accumulating since the 19th century. Contractors working
for the Athens-Clarke Leisure Services Department, which runs the greenway
and other county parks, have picked up tens of tons of debris and garbage,
and cleared acres of kudzu and other invasive species to try to restore
the streambank area to its natural state.
So far, they've restored several areas along the greenway, including
a meadow near the intersection of College Avenue and Martin Luther
King Jr. Parkway, the site of a former general store near MLK and North
and most recently, a patch near Dudley Park, where the county greenway
coordinator was cited for violating a stream buffer when he forgot
to get the right permit.
Before the 1960s, when people became aware of air and water pollution
problems, it was common for sawmills and junkyards along the river
to dump trash into it, or for in-fill developers or city road workers
dump timber, asphalt or concrete along the banks, Wharton and Athens-Clarke
Environmental Coordinator Dick Field said. Such dumping wasn't illegal
at the time, but the consequences are still felt today, Field said.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that having
old asbestos shingles and who knows what else being dumped into the water
hurt water quality, Field said.
But, despite a plethora of environmental laws passed in the last 40 years
to protect bodies of water like the North Oconee River, dumping still
"People are still doing it, no question about that," Field
you catch them, sometimes you don't."
The contractors, paid out of local sales-tax money earmarked for green
space, use equipment to clear away kudzu, English ivy and other plant
species that don't belong, and to lift out heavy debris, Wharton said,
while county employees and volunteers clean up smaller pieces of everyday
trash by hand.
Wharton said he would like to see more residents, especially developers,
help with the cleanups.
"The legacy you leave behind is tremendous," he said.
The four-mile greenway now runs from Sandy Creek Nature Center off
Commerce Road to Dudley Park in East Athens. Plans are to extend it in
five years north to the Jackson County line and south to College Station
Road, adding about 10 miles to the bicycle and pedestrian paths.