By Guest Columnist JACKIE ECHOLS, an environmentalist and citizen acitivist.
Second a two-part series on the state of the City of Atlanta’s water and sewer plans.
The Atlanta Department of Watershed Management (DWM) needs to give top priority to demonstrating that the combined sewer overflow (CSO) tunnels and treatment investments already in place will bring Atlanta into compliance by the current 2014 deadline. No time extension should be granted.
However, a time extension to rebuild sewer infrastructure in the combined sewer areas is appropriate. These areas are served by the CSO tunnel and treatment systems. Because water quality improvements occur at the combined sewer treatment facilities, rebuilding sewers in combined sewer areas will have no measurable effect on downstream water quality.
What will measurably impact downstream water quality are projects that reduce overflows by keeping rainfall out of the combined sewer pipes.
The DWM needs additional time to redesign the stormwater infrastructure in these areas to accommodate existing community driven plans that incorporate the capture of rain water in cisterns, ponds, green spaces and parks.
These environmentally sustainable stormwater features will not only improve downstream water quality but will also reduce flooding and sewage backups in homes, businesses, parks, and neighborhoods in the combined sewer area itself.
Capturing rain water runoff in greenways significantly reduces the amount of sediment, nutrients, metals and other pollutants and could virtually eliminate combined sewer overflows.
Greenways could outperform existing CSO treatment facilities, which are plagued with operational challenges. For example, the existing facilities are having difficulty removing the required 60 percent of Total Suspended Solids (TSS), the tiny particles that make water cloudy.
In contrast, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency documented TSS removal rate for stormwater greenways in Austin, Texas is 85 percent. And removal rates for zinc and copper, the two metals which led to Atlanta’s consent decrees, were 76 and 66 percent, respectively. Atlanta’s existing facilities do not have engineered units for removing dissolved metals.
Community efforts throughout the combined sewer area reflect an awareness of and appreciation for the value of natural processes and spaces by working with nature to manage rainwater. Georgia Tech is building cisterns and retention ponds to reduce its stormwater runoff to 1950s levels. And the stormwater pond under construction in the Historic Old Fourth Ward Park will reduce flooding and hold back stormwater before it gets into the combined sewer trunk line.
Residents in Vine City, English Avenue and nearby communities are visioning a network of parks and green spaces, cisterns, streetscapes, and rainwater features to manage stormwater. This would not only add attractive features that contribute to revitalizing these communities, but would also improve water quality and save the $50 million necessary to extend the combined sewer tunnel up to the Georgia World Congress Center.
Improved water quality, reduced flooding, improved quality of life and water conservation would all be enhanced by a time extension to rethink and redesign stormwater infrastructure in the combined sewer areas.
Stormwater management that incorporates greenways will also enable Atlanta to add much needed parks and green spaces in some of the city’s most ‘under-parked’ areas.
Community green spaces are multi-functional which increase their value to inner-city CSO neighborhoods. Benefits include providing water quality protection, economic growth, wildlife habitat, recreation and protection of cultural and visual amenities making green space one investment that pays enduring dividends. Green spaces provide citizens with the biggest bang for their bucks.
Ten years ago the city was adamant in its position that water sewer enterprise funds could not be used to pay for stormwater projects. But there are reasons for guarded optimism that the city may be warming to the benefits of above ground stormwater management.
Since 2007, the city has spent in excess of $40 million of water sewer enterprise funds to acquire property for stormwater relief. A little more than $10 million was used to buy land in Vine City. Another $30 million paid for the stormwater pond in the Historic Old Fourth Ward Park — a $10 million savings when compared to the $40 million deep rock tunnel that was originally proposed.
This progress could be impeded if a request embedded in the city’s request for a 15-year time extension is approved.
The city is asking that the First Amended Consent Decree (FACD) be amended to allow the shallow sewage collection pipe networks to be used for storage. This change could become the source of additional sewer overflows and ‘fecal fountains’ which occur when pipes over-fill and erupt.
This places the city at risk for additional fines and further jeopardizes public health and safety by increasing the risk of soil and groundwater contamination from undetected leaks. Rather than spending more money to increase pipe sizes in the combined sewer areas, the city and ratepayers would be better served by evaluating the cost of further development of natural ‘soft engineering’ methods for dealing with stormwater.
The DWM needs to demonstrate that CSO investments will bring Atlanta into compliance with water quality standards by the current 2014 deadline.
Equally important, the city can and should seize every opportunity to improve downstream water quality by increasing the use of stormwater management with greenways, parks, and cisterns.
Reconfiguring sewer lines in combined sewer areas should take place as part of a broader perspective that looks at greenways storm water management – before combined sewers are rebuilt. A time extension to achieve this goal is justified.