HELEN — The third most visited city in Georgia is located at the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River in White County.
Alpine Helen draws more than three million visitors each year. Many of those visitors go tubing down the river between Memorial Day and Labor Day, renting tubes from Cool River Tubing and Helen Tubing. Others purchase their own tubes and go on their own.
Regardless, trash in and along the river is an ongoing concern for city officials, residents and business owners.
During Tuesday afternoon’s Helen City Commission meeting, Terry Sims of Cool River Tubing and members of the Long family from Helen Tubing and Helen Waterpark discussed steps their companies and employees are taking to try to reduce tubing-related debris.
“I’m not saying there’s not a problem,” said Derek Long of Helen Tubing. “There is a problem. I am saying that there are angles too that a lot of people haven’t seen as far as us trying to help clean up. It’s a lot bigger task than for just two tubing companies.”
Commissioner Jeff Ash, who will serve as mayor in 2018, suggested forming a committee including representatives from both tubing companies, himself and another city commissioner, Jimmy Harris of Unicoi Outfitters, resident David Greear and other interested people. That committee will meet in January, February and March, so that ideas gleaned from the group can be implemented when the season begins.
Mayor Helen Wilkins, who had asked for Tuesday’s discussion, was pleased with the outcome.
“We had a great meeting today with the owners of both tubing companies here, and we also had Jimmy Harris from Unicoi Outfitters, who is downriver from Helen,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins liked the idea of Ash’s committee to look at ways to address the issue of litter in and along the river, which provides drinking water downstream.
“There’s going to be a group that’s going to get together starting in January of the tubing companies and some of the city commissioners and some other people who are really interested to get really serious about what we can do to keep our river cleaner,” Wilkins said. “The tubing companies try as hard as they possibly can, but there’s always going to be something that escapes and is not picked up by them and gets on farther downriver.”
While plates and food wrappers are found in the river, city officials say they don’t make up most of the problem.
“Our biggest problem seems to be the water bottles — we allow one water bottle per tube — and flip-flops, which hopefully the flip-flops will be banned,” Wilkins said.
Greear said tubers lose their water bottles and flip-flops when their tube hits a section of rapids, and most tubers aren’t able to recover them.
Harris said hearing of the committee’s formation was a good early Christmas present for him, because he’s felt that no one was listening to his concerns of river pollution over the past 19 years.
“I think this is a good start and something we all care about up here at the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River,” Wilkins said. “We are going to try harder.”
The Chattahoochee provides drinking water for many water systems downstream of Helen, including the Metro Atlanta area.