Editor's note: This article has been revised to reflect the following correction, which will appear in the Nov. 5 print edition. The Ogeechee Riverkeeper's Oysters for the Ogeechee fundraiser is scheduled for Nov. 5. The wrong date was printed in an article Oct. 29.
Emily Markesteyn has always had a passion for nature and wildlife. Even as a kid, she knew she wanted a job that would allow her the opportunity to work in nature.
Now Markesteyn, the full-time Ogeechee Riverkeeper and executive director of the organization of the same name, advocates and helps protect and preserve 5,500 square miles of waterway.
After receiving a Bachelor of Science in environmental studies from Emory University in 2003, Markesteyn — born and raised in Savannah — quickly came back to the coast.
She began a sea turtle summer study program on Wassaw Island, then began her professional career in The Landings’ Public Works Department on Skidaway Island. Markesteyn spent seven years at The Landings, and in 2011, began looking for a job to get her back in the environmental field.
That year, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper executive director position opened up, and Markesteyn took the opportunity to get back to her true passion. Just a year later, she absorbed the Riverkeeper position as well. In this dual role, Markesteyn advocates for the Ogeechee River and runs the nonprofit Riverkeeper organization.
Markesteyn was hired a month before the fish kill of 2011. That May, 38,000 fish died along 70 miles of the Ogeechee downstream from a textile plant in Screven County.
“A lot of our organization time was spent on this Clean Water Act lawsuit against the textile facility in Screven County,” she said. “We did not feel like the state of Georgia Environmental Protection Division was holding the facility accountable enough. This is why we stepped in and did what we did. The outcome came in the form of settlement.”
With a new permit, stricter monitoring system and a company forced to be more transparent about its data and testing, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper and its supporters felt confident that their hard work was not in vain. The settlement with King America Finishing, now known as Longleaf, continues to contribute to the protection and preservation of coastal waters, Markesteyn said.
But even four years removed from the great fish kill, there is still cause for concern, as the 245-mile long river affects 22 counties in Southeast Georgia.
“That monopolized our time, and now, we are glad we can focus on other things that affect the waterways,” Markesteyn said.
There are three main program areas that are essential in allowing the Riverkeeper to preserve and protect the Ogeechee and Canoochee rivers. Home Town Waters Education programs, Healthy Waters Agenda and the Water Shed Watch — in concert with community involvement — stand together as the foundational cornerstones of the conservation effort.
Education and outreach are done mainly in classrooms and festivals. Instruction is based solely on what’s going on in specific communities and the basin. The Riverkeeper works on educating people on where their clean water comes from and how to keep it clean.
Healthy Waters Agenda is where Markesteyn works to establish environmental policy and legislation to protect natural resources. This includes going to the state Capitol and working with municipalities.
Water Shed Watch is where we do our water quality monitoring, taking samples, and investigating pollution issues. Getting citizens active in taking water samples at their nearby water ways is also an essential component of noticing any changes in water equality.
“We cannot be everywhere at once, we rely on citizens in their respective communities to keep an eye out on pollution or happenings in the waterways. We want them to feel comfortable to contact us and we will investigate and get it to the right authorities,” Markesteyn said. “Getting involved in good environmental policies in legislation, and making sure their elected officials make clean water a priority is an important step for our community.”
As a nonprofit, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper relies heavily on donations and financial support from the community. On Nov. 5, the Riverkeeper will host its second annual Oysters for the Ogeechee at the Isle of Hope Marina in Savannah. The event features all-you-can-eat oysters and other food by Barnes Express and music by DJ Jose Ray. One drink ticket is included in admission price, $45 for an individual, $40 each for parties of two or more, $90 for VIP and $80 each for VIP parties of two or more.
For more information on Riverkeeper membership or local events, go to www.ogeecheeriverkeeper.org.