Savannahian Simona Perry has been named the new riverkeeper and executive director of the nonprofit Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization.
The 294-mile blackwater river flowing through portions of 22 Georgia counties is home to unique fish and wildlife as well as a beloved recreational resource for fishing, swimming and boating. The waterway has largely recovered from a 2011 fish kill, Perry said.
“It’s relatively clean and undeveloped,” she said. “There are always issues but we have the opportunity to be the model to keep your waterway what it should be.”
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization, which aims to protect, preserve, and improve the water quality of the basin, began in its current form in 2004 with the merger of the Canoochee Riverkeeper and the Friends of the Ogeechee group. It’s licensed by the Waterkeeper Alliance and has 400 members. That massive 2011 fish kill on the river prompted a Clean Water Act lawsuit settlement with King America Finishing (now Milliken), which produced a stricter discharge permit, more frequent and transparent water testing protocol, and a $2.5 million settlement, about $1.3M of which funded an endowment to continue efforts to research and protect the river.
Perry is already familiar with life along the Ogeecheee, having led the nonprofit’s Oral History Project in 2016. A Savannah native, Perry earned her bachelor’s degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, her master’s in Marine Policy from the University of Washington, and her doctorate in the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources Conservation from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Before returning home to Savannah, Perry worked seven years as a marine fisheries biologist with NOAA, three years as director of an environmental education non-profit, and 12 years studying and writing about the cultural and political ecology of various rivers in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York.
“Simona Perry brings great experience and incredible enthusiasm for the Ogeechee River,” said Ogeechee Riverkeeper board member Clay Mobley.
Three riverkeepers preceded Perry: Chandra Brown, Dianna Wedincamp and Emily Kurilla.
As the new riverkeeper, Perry’s duties will include encouraging partnerships throughout the Ogeechee River basin, increasing membership, strengthening the donor base, building the organization’s Watershed Watch, Healthy Waters, and Hometown Waters programs, and serving as the “go-to” person for environmental issues across the river basin. Landowners along the river were mobilized by the fish kill, with many reaching their own settlements with King America Finishing but with many also stepping forward to assist the riverkeeper. She intends to build on those relationships.
“I hope to continue to empower river landowners, as well as current and future river users, to become more directly engaged in Ogeechee Riverkeeper’s mission of protecting, preserving, and improving the water quality of the Ogeechee River basin,” Perry said.
Perry is charged with making the organization less Savannah-centric and she’s well suited to the task, said Kirsten Parent, the chairman of the riverkeeper board.
“She’s able to tell the story of our river and not just Savannah but with its differing demographics as you move upriver and down to the coast,” she said.
Assisting her in this mission will be Director of Operations and Special Projects Jenn West and Outreach and Water Quality Specialist Luke Roberson. Since former Riverkeeper Emily Markesteyn Kurilla left the organization earlier this year, West and Roberson have kept the nonprofit running by planning and orchestrating special events, leading already-implemented programs, continuing with community outreach and education efforts, working with the board, and focusing on fundraising and support initiatives.
Environmental concerns along the river include impacts to fish, wildlife, public health, wetlands, tidal marshes, river water quantity and water quality from activities such as titanium and zirconium sand mining, forestry practices, paper mills, solid and hazardous waste disposal sites, residential and industrial development, sea level rise, and invasions by exotic animals and plants.
“The relationships we build and maintain with landowners, recreational boaters, fishermen and hunters, farmers, foresters, and local governments is, in the end, what will ensure these local and regional places of ecological, cultural, and economic importance are protected for everyone,” said Perry. “This means building a network of individuals and organizations who no matter how diverse their perspectives can share a vision of drinkable, swimmable, and fishable waterways for their children’s children.”