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Helen tourists trash lands Chattahoochee on Dirty Dozen list
Litter from tubers poses threat to wildlife, bothers landowners
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Tubers enjoy the Chattahoochee River in Helen in this 2013 Labor Day weekend file photo.

“Shooting the ’Hooch” in Helen is enjoyed by thousands of swimsuit-clad tourists each summer, but trash produced by the activity on the Chattahoochee River has landed the river on a “Dirty Dozen” list.

“These colorful flotillas of fun sometimes leave behind an equally colorful flotsam for downstream property owners and other river users,” states the Georgia Water Coalition’s annual report issued Wednesday.

“In addition to fouling the beauty of Georgia’s rivers, litter, and especially plastic, poses a serious threat to wildlife,” according to the report. “Fish and birds can ingest these pollutants leading to health problems and death.”

The coalition says Helen officials “must enact ordinances that regulate the number of tubers that float the river each day.”

And “those using the river must behave responsibly by not littering, and leaving the river cleaner than they found it.”

Also, state leaders “should consider new laws that address plastic pollution as has been done in other states, successfully reducing communities’ dependence on single-use plastic products,” the report states.

The problem of litter from river users is not limited to tubers in Helen, but the Chattahoochee River is the “focal point of outdoor recreation” in Helen and White County, the report states.

“It is the lifeblood of the state, and in Helen, it is a primary economic calling card.”

In a phone conference with the news media, Jimmy Harris of Unicoi Outfitters said trash in the river is “something we’ve been battling for 16, 17 years.”

“We pay somebody on a weekly basis to keep the section of river downstream from Helen clean, but it’s more than that,” Harris said. “What we’re talking about is being a good neighbor, and right now neither the city nor some of the businesses in Helen fit that description.”

In 2006, Helen adopted ordinances banning the use of coolers on the river and requiring tube rental businesses to patrol the river and pick up litter.

“Now, almost a decade (later), downstream landowners and river users still complain of trash left by the thousands of tubers,” the report states.

“It’s a case of sheer numbers overwhelming the Chattahoochee.”

Asked whether Helen can take any further action regarding the river, City Manager Jerry Elkins said, “Those are state waters. The state controls the river, not the city. The city doesn’t think it has the right to control how many people get on state waters.”

The city does require tubing companies to post signs explaining its ordinances, Elkins said.

He said tubing companies are required to take turns cleaning the river and “then we have our police check the river every morning for littering when they start patrol.

“If it’s dirty, whichever (company) is responsible for that week’s (cleanup) would be cited for not performing their duty.”

Terry Sims, owner of Cool River Tubing in Helen, said river pollution through Helen comes from many sources.
“It’s picnickers and fishermen who leave more trash than anybody,” he said. “And it flushes out of the (Chattahoochee-Oconee) National Forest, and there’s a lot of trash there right now. And people throw trash out their vehicles.”