LaGRANGE — Getting there wasn’t easy.
Monday’s launch of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s 42-foot floating classroom – dubbed the Miss Sally after the nonprofit’s founder, Sally Bethea – had its challenges.
The $96,000 project was supported in part by the Callaway Foundation of LaGrange, which gave the riverkeeper a matching grant, according to Jason Ulseth of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. But money was only part of the equation. The organization had to find a properly credentialed pilot for the boat, about 150 life jackets had to be purchased along with scientific equipment, and finally, it had to be delivered to its new home at Highland Marina Resort on Seminole Road for its launch.
The riverkeeper plans to use the 5,500-pound, triple-pontoon craft as an education platform to teach area students, civic groups and other organizations about West Point Lake, according to Henry Jacobs, a local outreach coordinator for the riverkeeper.
“We’re hoping people will learn about West Point Lake in relation to the Chattahoochee River watershed,” Jacobs said. “We’ll teach about the history of the lake, along with science and math. It’s also a team-building experience.”
Jacobs hopes people will learn more about the lake and become interested in protecting it for future generations.
“This boat is to teach kids – and adults – about preservation, because we don’t want West Point Lake to go back to the way it used to be. We want to shine a positive light on West Point Lake, because people tend to discredit it, especially in the media and on social media.”
Decades ago, West Point Lake was a mess. Things got so bad that in the mid-90s, the riverkeeper, Troup County and its three cities were part of a lawsuit against the city of Atlanta for polluting the waterway.
Things started to turn around when the case was settled in 1999, according to Ulseth.
Today, the state-of-the-art Miss Sally, complete with twin 150-horsepower outboard engines, will help keep that past on the minds of Troup residents, Jacobs hopes. The craft can carry about 50 people and its floating laboratory carries instruments to measure oxygen levels in the water, the acidity of the water, binoculars for wildlife viewing, even microscopes for people to learn about the tiny creatures that live in the water.
LaGrange College professor Randy Colvin, a biologist, said he plans to take his students out on the lake to sample the water and teach them about what makes a healthy waterway.
“This is a neat resource to have,” he said. “Actually, it’s amazing. If we can get a few people using it, I think the word will really get out.”
Public school students will be able to use the boat for free, Jacobs said. The riverkeeper is working to hire three or four instructors who will lead lessons on the water and teach young people about the science behind clean water.
Other groups, such as churches, civic clubs and organizations are also invited to use the floating classroom, Jacobs said. There’s a “reasonable” fee for the use of the boat to cover expenses such as fuel, the pilot and insurance, but Jacobs said the riverkeeper is willing to work with groups to make the cost as low as possible.
Jacobs said he hopes the classroom will be a remembrance not only of the importance of protecting the Chattahoochee River, but also of the legacy Bethea created through the riverkeeper.
“This is kind of an ode to Sally and all the people who brought that lawsuit against the city of Atlanta,” Jacobs said. “It’s because of those people that we have a cleaner rivershed today that we can enjoy.”
Tyler H. Jones is a reporter for LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.