Protecting the Coosa: New College graduate leads environmental nonprofit

Justinn Overton, a New College graduate, is pursuing her dreams as the executive director of Coosa Riverkeeper. Photo Credit: Stephen Gross
Justinn Overton, a New College graduate, is pursuing her dreams as the executive director of Coosa Riverkeeper. Photo Credit: Stephen Gross

From the 2016 Celebrating Excellence | Growing up, Justinn Overton, a native of Birmingham, spent many of her Saturdays barely awake and fishing on Logan Martin Lake in the Coosa River system with her parents.

“I have a distinct memory of feeling the wind on my face in this little john boat we had at the time and learning how to bait my own hook,” she said.

Today, Overton, a 2010 New College graduate, is the executive director of Coosa Riverkeeper, and she spends every day helping to protect and raise awareness of the 220 miles of Coosa waterways she loves so much.

Southern Living honored her dedicated work on the river in November, naming her one of four “women of worth.”

Coosa Riverkeeper was founded in 2010 and has only two staff members, but together with the help of interns and nearly 150 volunteers, the nonprofit organization covers 5,000 square miles of terrain, which makes up nearly one tenth of the entire state. Its main goal is clean water.

“There are about 500,000 people who live, work, or play in and around the lakes and creeks that we work to protect,” Overton said. “But water is something that I think we often take for granted. Only once it’s compromised do you realize how many layers of your life are influenced by your access to clean water.

“For instance, when you’re swimming in a lake or a creek, most of the time you don’t think, ‘Could there be E. coli in here?’ Most of the time, you just jump in.”

Though there are systems in place to clean water, Overton said that the population increase in various parts of the watershed has made the infrastructure for keeping the water clean inadequate. Sewage overflow and industries that don’t comply with their pollution permits are two of the main problems.

“Obviously if there is a sanitary sewer overflow or weak pollution permits,” Overton said, “that compromises the integrity of the water that you’re swimming in.”

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management is not required to test inland lakes and streams for E. coli, which is why the team at Coosa Riverkeeper took on the task themselves.

Each summer, Overton and her team test 18 sites over the course of 18 weeks throughout the watershed, and with the data they collect, they create what they call the Coosa River Swim Guide.

“We test every week during the summer months because the public should know that the water that they are swimming in is not going to give them gastrointestinal discomfort or ear, nose, and throat issues,” Overton said.

If the tests ever indicate that water is not safe to swim in, the team sends out free text messages and email messages to those who have subscribed to the alert system. Currently the system has more than 150 subscribers.

Monitoring the water, however, is only one of the many goals of Coosa Riverkeeper. Overton is also concerned with the river’s biodiversity and fish population. In 2013 the team removed a dam from Big Canoe Creek in Springville, Alabama, in order to restore natural fish migration for the first time in 130 years. Overton also helps inform fishermen about the 26 fish-consumption advisories on the Coosa River.

Though it is not illegal to eat fish in advisory areas, it is discouraged because the fish may be contaminated with mercury and other toxic chemicals. And the bigger the fish, the more likely it is to have been contaminated.

“I go out to the hydroelectric dams on our river and actually interview fishermen about what their knowledge is of these advisories, so that we can hopefully work toward more consistent, reliable information that is not so difficult for people to find,” Overton said.

Overton’s work in environmental advocacy is relatively unique, but it is—and was—even more unique as an undergraduate course of study.

“I feel very fortunate,” Overton said, “because I am one of the few people I know who went to college to do exactly what I do in the professional world.”

As a New College student, Overton was able to tailor her degree to the exact goals she had for the future. She took courses on everything from environmental management and endangered species to paleoclimatology and cooperation and conflict, all of which culminated in her depth study in environmental advocacy and public health.

“I changed my major several times before I found New College,” Overton said. “None of the majors I had gave me the freedom I needed in my coursework or the ability to cultivate real relationships with my professors and classmates, but New College made me feel like my goals were important and that they could come true. I wanted to work in an environmental nonprofit in Alabama and I get the opportunity to do that now—on my home river.” •