Planning for water in metro Atlanta and its effect on rivers that nurture oysters in Apalachicola

Editor’s Note: This is the third of three stories this week that look at water issues that affect metro Atlanta. Click to read the first story and the second story.

By David Pendered

The debate over how to meet the water needs of metro Atlanta comes down to two different principles – whether the region should use less water, or provide greater supply through additional reservoirs.

A wayfinding sign in Apalachicola, Fla. displays a sense of humor. Credit: David Pendered

A wayfinding sign in Apalachicola, Fla. displays a sense of humor. Credit: David Pendered

Even that reduction doesn’t go far enough. For one, there’s not a consensus on how much water the region will need in the future. In addition, there’s little agreement on the data and science used in the debate.

If this sounds familiar, it is – transportation and the proposed 1 percent sales tax that was on the ballot in 2012 to pay for roads and transit. One difference with the water debate is that the public probably won’t be asked to decide for or against whatever solution is reached by water planners over the next two years.

The public is certainly engaged, especially residents and advocates of the aquaculture of Apalachicola, Fla. where the oyster population has plummeted. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. caused a ruckus this month when he linked the oyster situation to water usage in metro Atlanta. Kennedy is president of the Waterkeepers Alliance.

This is where some of the competing data comes into view. These are just two of the many reports chalk full of data about the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River system.

In April, a report funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce laid blame for the oyster situation on a “perfect storm” of challenges.

The Apalachicola River merges with the Jackson River about seven miles before the river passes the town of Apalachicola, Fla. Credit: David Pendered

The Apalachicola River merges with the Jackson River about seven miles before the river passes the town of Apalachicola, Fla. Credit: David Pendered

The report cites low flow from Georgia that result from the drought, upstream withdrawals by metro Atlanta and farmers in Alabama and Georgia, and oyster harvesting practices. The report’s background section concludes:

  • “In essence, the period from 2010 to 2012 may have been a perfect storm for the oyster fishery in Apalachicola Bay with low river flows and higher salinity creating poor environmental conditions and several years of low juvenile survival and naturally low populations. At the same time, oyster demand, prices, and fishing effort, combined with insufficient fishery management enforcement and adjudication, led to a large portion of the oysters being harvested.”

Part of the question is why the river flow is low. Another report offers its perspective.

This report, also issued in April, reviewed low flows in the Flint River found them to be due in large part to manmade situations that are exasperated by drought. The report was written by Gordon Rogers, executive director of Flint Riverkeeper, and Ben Emanuel, of American Rivers. It was funded by philanthropic groups including the Turner and Parks foundations.

Katherine Zitsch

Katherine Zitsch

The report concluded that urbanization in the upper reaches of the Flint, which begins near Atlanta’s airport, has altered the way water flows into the river, and also takes water from the Flint or its tributaries and returns waster water into another river basin. Rogers said in an email:

  • “Metro returns to the upper Flint are 25 percent or less of what is taken out, starving the upper Flint for flow. Metro rightly claims a high rate of return. Problem is, a lot of it goes to the wrong ocean (estuary), winding up down at Darien rather than Apalachicola.”

The task of sifting through the data and devising a water management plan for metro Atlanta falls to the Metropolitan North Georgia Water District. Incidentally, the district’s chairman, Dallas Mayor Boyd Austin, endorses the water reservoir plan of Gov. Nathan Deal.

The district is planning more studies as it begins work on a water plan that is due in 2016. The plan originally had been due in 2014, but the state postponed it two years so all of Georgia’s water districts could plan together as needed and submit in the same year.

The metro water district is staffed by the Atlanta Regional Commission under the direction of Katherine Zitsch, who joined ARC in January as the director of its Natural Resources Division and director of the water district.

Zitsch came to the ARC from the private sector, where she had worked more than 16 years with the environmental engineering firm CDM Smith and departed as a vice president. Zitsch holds two degrees from Clemson University, a bachelor’s in civil engineering and a master’s in environmental systems engineering.

Paddlers walk their vessels over shoals on the Flint River in 2008. Credit: Joe Cook via Flint Riverkeeper

Paddlers walk their vessels over shoals on the Flint River in 2008. Credit: Joe Cook via Flint Riverkeeper

Zitsch contends that metro Atlanta has made tremendous strides in reducing water consumption. The region’s downstream partners may not have a full understanding of just how much the region has curbed its withdrawals, she said. Zitsch points to improvements in the past decade that include:

  • The replacement of 85,000 water-wasting toilets with water-efficient toilets;
  • The repair of 25,000 leaks in underground water pipes;
  • Tiered water pricing that’s intended to give users a reason to curb water usage.

“We are committed to water conservation,” Zitsch said. “That message is getting overlooked. The water planning district has made a lot of strides in many areas surrounding water conservation. It is a continuing process.

“There’s value in pointing out that the metro Atlanta water consumption is not driving the challenges facing watermen in Apalachicola,” Zitsch said. “It’s far overshadowed by Mother Nature and the effect of major drought, as well as the size of Apalachicola Bay. The 2 to 3 percent of water in the system that we consume cannot solve the challenge of Apalachicola Bay … during times of drought.

“They would still have that issue today because Mother Nature didn’t provide enough water, not because of the 2 to 3 percent of water supply that metro Atlanta consumed.”


David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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