A cleaner Chattahoochee River to result from expanded sewer plant
By David Pendered
The era of raw sewage rolling down the Chattahoochee River from spills in North Fulton County is to be coming to an end. The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper campaigned for, and supports, the expanded sewage treatment plant being built in Roswell.
“This is something we’ve been asking for a long time,” Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth said.
Fulton County’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously July 8 to provide $274.8 million to complete the planned expansion of the Big Creek Water Reclamation Facility. The county intends to borrow money for the project. The bonds were awarded on June 5 a top quality investment rating, with a stable outlook, by Moody’s Investors Service.
The expansion of the Big Creek facility is among the many attempts in metro Atlanta to stop discharging untreated sewage into waterways including the Chattahoochee and South Rivers. Federal action was required in some instances.
Atlanta’s current $4 billion sewerage improvement program is compelled by a federal consent decree that resulted from a federal lawsuit filed in 1995 by the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, and others. DeKalb County is under a federal consent decree to stop polluting waterways, and the decree was to have expired June 20. A pending federal lawsuit filed in 2019 contends the county is not complying with the decree.
Fulton County is under no such order. Ulseth said litigation has not been necessary to compel action by Fulton County officials. Ulseth was named riverkeeper in 2015 after serving since 2007 as the organization’s technical programs director.
“Ultimately, no one wants raw sewage going into the Chattahoochee River,” Ulseth said Monday. “It’s a matter of prioritizing projects and getting them done as quickly as possible.”
The existing plant simply cannot meet the demand put on it by development. A timeline of the facility’s construction and expansion parallels the rate of growth in North Fulton:
- 1971 – The plant opened with a capacity to treat 0.75 million gallons of sewage a day. Fulton’s countywide population was 603,600, according to the Federal Reserve;
- 1991 – The plant’s last major expansion raised its permitted capacity to 24 million gallons a day. Fulton’s countywide population was 663,021, according to the Federal Reserve;
- 2024 – The expansion is to open with a capacity to treat 32 million gallons of sewage a day. Fulton’s countywide population is estimated to reach 1.1 million, according to the Georgia Public Library Service.
Ulseth said the expanded plant won’t end sewage spills. Even with the expanded capacity, rain events could push it over capacity. A similar situation is expected in Atlanta’s sewerage system, when heavy rains are expected to cause untreated sewage to flow into the South River even after work is complete on two treatment facilities.
“The expansion won’t eliminate spills, but it will take care of a lot of it,” Ulseth said. “The main problem has been that [the existing plant] is running at about 80 percent of capacity at base flow: When it’s not raining, it’s at 80 percent. So it has no buffering capacity at all.”