Chattahoochee River – clearer waters after 20 years – more work to do

By Guest Columnist SALLY BETHEA, founding executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper who is retiring at the end of the year

This is the first of Bethea’s two-part series about water issues in the Atlanta region. Next week: the tri-state water conflict.

Thirty years ago, the city of Atlanta’s sewer system was so overloaded that any significant amount of rain sent raw sewage into city creeks – leaving toilet paper hanging in trees and human waste festering in stagnant pools.

In an older and highly-developed portion of the city, rain that flowed into storm drains was funneled into the same system that carried sewage to treatment plants. During torrential downpours, the sudden inflow of rainwater swamped the sewage treatment system. The resulting “combined” overflow of stormwater and untreated sewage (CSOs) surged into creeks and rivers, carrying human feces, condoms and other matter downstream.

Sally Bethea on the Chattahoochee River (Photos: courtesy of Chattahoochee Riverkeepers)

Sally Bethea on a river (Photos: courtesy of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper)

In the rest of the city, sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) polluted neighborhood streams – even during dry weather – thanks to decades of failure to maintain, repair and replace more than 1,500 miles of sewer lines. The city’s three sewage treatment plants were not in much better shape.

As the 1996 Olympics approached, Atlanta had a third-world sewer system in a city that aspired to be “best-in-class.”

I became the Chattahoochee River’s first “riverkeeper” in 1994. Our new organization’s first and biggest challenge was stopping the chronic sewage overflows in the city. These spills were threatening public health, polluting drinking water sources and harming property values.

In my new job, I walked beside streams that were filled with everything that you flush down your toilet, including the ironically-named Clear Creek – a stream that flows through Piedmont Park, not far from the neighborhood that I have called home for more than 30 years.

With a photographer from USA Today, I saw literally thousands of condoms hanging from trees along the river, just a few miles from prestigious homes on Garraux Road in northwest Atlanta.

In the stream that flows through John A. White Park in southwest Atlanta – not far from the homes of former Atlanta mayors Andrew Young and Shirley Franklin and Atlanta Braves baseball legend Hank Aaron – Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (CRK) staff found lumps of human feces.

I was stunned by the nasty secret that flowed through neighborhoods of all income levels and under the roads that carried responsible state and federal officials to their downtown offices.

Downstream from Atlanta, communities could not safely use the river for drinking water or recreation. Sixty-five miles of river from Atlanta to West Point Lake had simply been written off by state officials who said that Atlanta couldn’t afford to fix the problem. They discouraged boat ramps, assuming that this section of the Chattahoochee would forever be Atlanta’s sewage canal.

Broken sewer pipe along the Chattahoochee River

Broken sewer pipe along the Chattahoochee River

Working closely with downstream government officials, businesses and property owners, CRK filed a Clean Water Act lawsuit in federal court in 1995 to force the city to stop fouling the river, harming communities and degrading property values.

Today, riverfront property downstream of the city is a valuable commodity, sought by developers such as Jamestown and conservation-minded property owners. A popular state park has been established and water trails are proposed.

In the city, urban streams are cleaner on an order of ten-fold, as CRK’s water quality monitoring data, collected by dedicated community volunteers, has documented in recent years.

While the $2 billion cost has not been inexpensive, the result has been astounding – both for the environment and for the economy.

According to the current and former mayors, about $18 billion in downtown investment would have been impossible without the massive sewer upgrade which halted sewer moratoriums and enhanced capacity.

Sally Bethea used to overcoming challenges along the Chattahoochee

Sally Bethea used to overcoming challenges along the Chattahoochee

Longtime river advocate Alan Toney says: “We used to regularly see toilet paper floating along in Peachtree Creek… In those days, I wouldn’t let my dog drink out of Peachtree Creek, fearing he might get hepatitis or worse. Today, you often see great blue herons fishing in the shallows; it’s still not squeaky clean, but it’s come a long way in the right direction.”

As Alan notes, there is still work to be done, and CRK is focused on the task, working with government, business and nonprofit partners to continue the cleanup of long-abused tributaries to the Chattahoochee River, like Proctor Creek on the west side of downtown.

The federal consent decree that settled CRK’s 1995 lawsuit focused on specific clean water violations and was never intended to fix all of the city’s water woes. But, as a critical first step, it’s been a success, recognized locally and nationally.

Now, it’s time to tackle other city water problems – from stormwater pollution and trash to floods and drought – including a resolution of the longstanding water dispute between Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

Stay tuned to next week’s column.

The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization with 7,000 members. When Bethea retires at the end of the years as the executive director and Riverkeeper, a new leadership team will take over — Juliet Cohen will become the executive director, and Jason Ulseth will become the Riverkeeper.

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