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Rivers benefit from vigilance
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BRUNSWICK — Despite a slow moving economy in recent years, membership in the Altamaha Riverkeeper has flowed as strongly as the river the organization commits to protect.

The same, however, can’t be said of the organization that protects the Satilla River near Glynn County. Its membership is down.

For the Altamaha Riverkeeper, though, the news is good. Since 2008, 500 members have either joined the organization as a contributor or renewed their memberships, said Deborah Sheppard, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper.

Members must pay a renewal fee each year.

Membership stands at approximately 1,400, which is above-average for the organization historically.

Many of them live on the coast.

"Almost 400 members live in McIntosh and Glynn counties," Sheppard said. "We’re extremely fortunate to have a large group of people who care and want to invest in protecting these resources and want to continue to support our work."

The Altamaha Riverkeeper organization in Darien monitors pollution and water quality of the state’s longest river, the Altamaha, which includes the rivers that supply it — the Ocmulgee, Oconee and Ohoopee.

The organization operates solely on grants and donations. Contributions allow it to conduct water tests and site inspections and respond to citizen complaints.

As membership has grown so has the number of donations from individuals, who are digging deep into their pockets, despite feeling financially strapped, Sheppard said.

"We are still very fortunate to have donations ranging from $7.50 to $5,000," Sheppard said. "People are giving at all levels."

The Satilla Riverkeeper, on the other hand, has seen a 50 percent drop from 2009 to 2010 in large donations, which are $100 or more, said Kellie Parr, operations and outreach manager for the environmental organization.

"That is definitely a sign of the recession," Parr said. "Individual donors who were giving large amounts are giving much smaller amounts."

It could also be explained by non-renewing members. Membership has dropped by 50 since 2008, to just below 500.

Fewer organizations and businesses are offering funds, but grants and small donations under $100 have remained the same, she said.

"We’ve had to, just like any business, become more cost conscious, but it hasn’t affected the work Bill (Miller, executive director and riverkeeper) does," Parr said.

Miller said the nonprofit organization works to restore, protect and educate people about the Satilla River.

To improve membership, the organization is mailing letters to non-renewing members and is publishing a quarterly newsletter to inform people of its ongoing cleanup work.

"We got about a 15 percent response from the people we sent a letter to stating we missed them and their involvement in the Satilla River and wanted to see if they were interested in reinvesting in the Satilla River. We still have responses trickling in," Miller said.

The Altamaha Riverkeeper is also making an effort to reach out to the community, meet more people and increase its membership by organizing several events and parties.

It is holding a cocktail party on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, at J. Mac’s on St. Simons Island, said Sonja Cox, the Altamaha Riverkeeper.

"We’ll talk about the connection between the (Altamaha) River and the local seafood and local ingredients that are featured," Cox said.

"Without a clean river, the marsh couldn’t support the ecosystem. Without the marsh, there wouldn’t be any (local) seafood to eat. Some people don’t make that connection."

Mac Mason, owner of J. Mac’s restaurant, said the organization carries out important work.

"We think it’s a great program," Mason said. "They’ve got to maintain these rivers and estuary systems that we have here that keeps the seafood coming."

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