Removing the minimum flow of water along Chattahoochee will put river at risk

By Maria Saporta

There’s a saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

That’s a message the Georgia Environmental Protection Division needs to hear.

The Georgia EPD has proposed removing all minimum flow requirements along the Chattahoochee River at Peachtree Creek in Atlanta – eliminating a standard that has been in place for nearly 40 years.

Environmentalists, water stewards and park advocates believe that those standards have been essential to protecting the health of the river – a fragile waterway that has to dilute water discharged from sewage treatment plants in Fulton, Cobb, Douglas and Gwinnett counties.

Chattahoochee River

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s 13th annual Back to the Chattahoochee River Race and Festival held on June 13 (Source: CRK website)

The minimum that the EPD is proposing to remove is a minimum flow of 750 cubic feet per second of water along Chattahoochee as it passes by Atlanta’s Peachtree Creek.

“We are really concerned that by removing the 750 cfs minimum and not putting an alternative in place, we are putting the Chattahoochee River at risk,” said Jason Ulseth, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “It’s very risky. You have to have a certain volume of water to dilute the treated sewage water.”

The plants along the river discharge an average of 437 cubic feet per second (cfs) of treated sewage water. The minimum flow of 750 cfs is considered necessary to dilute the treated water so that it doesn’t impact the quality of the river for our neighbors downstream.

Concerned citizens will have an opportunity to weigh in on the proposed changes at a public hearing on Friday, June 26 at 1 p.m. in  the Environmental Protection Division Training Center located at 4244  International  Parkway,  Suite  116, Atlanta, G.a 30354.

So why would the EPD propose removing the minimum flow?

The stated reason is that the state needs to be sure that metro Atlanta has enough water on hand during periods of drought to meet the water demands of our growing metropolis.

As we often hear, Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin is the smallest watershed serving a major metro area in the United States.

Chattahoochee River graphic

Chattahoochee River at Peachtree Creek – Buford Dam minimum flow requirement (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Lake Lanier is the water reservoir serving the basin – and disputes over the use of water in the ACF basin has led to lawsuits between Georgia, Alabama and Florida – not to mention disagreements among communities all along the Chattahoochee River.

Amazingly, in May, a group of 56 interested stakeholders from the three states- the ACF Stakeholders Inc. – voted unanimously on a Sustainable Water Management Plan for “equitably managing water in the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River Basin” raising more than $1.7 million to gather and model all the data needed to develop the consensus-driven plan.

The plan is being shared with the governors of Alabama, Florida and Georgia as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and its recommendations have been publicly distributed.

But here is the kicker. All the modeling data was based on a minimum flow of 750 cfs on the Chattahoochee at Peachtree Creek. So all the consensus among the various stakeholders was based on the minimum flow of water that EPD has had in place for the past four decades.

Chattahoochee River

Map of the Chattahoochee River Basin (Source: Chattahoochee Riverkeeper)

“All the ACF stakeholders have agreed, and all the modeling assumptions in the agreement have assumed 750 cfs,” Ulseth said. “Why does this have to happen this quickly? Why now?”

When it proposed eliminating the minimum water flow standard, EPD said it would apply water quality standards at all flows. But here is the problem. The EPD does not have the staff to monitor water quality standards with the minimum flows in place, much less when they are removed altogether.

Ulseth and other environmental organizations fear that it will be hard to implement and enforce clean water standards along the Chattahoochee if minimum flow requirements are removed.

There are several other potential solutions. Perhaps the most promising is to raise the level of Lake Lanier.

Currently, Lake Lanier is considered full when it’s at 1,071 feet above sea level. The U.S. Corps of Engineers is studying the feasibility of raising that to 1,073 feet above sea level.

That would give the Corps greater flexibility to release enough water to maintain the minimum flows during conditions of extreme drought.

“We are absolutely in favor of going through with the feasibility of raising the level of Lake Lanier,” Ulseth said. He also said the metro area must continue to adopt water conservation measures and consider other alternatives before reducing or removing the minimum flow requirements along the Chattahoochee River.

The official position of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is that a comprehensive, scientific study and water quality-monitoring program is needed to ensure that water quality and recreation will not be harmed by lower flows in the river.

I’ve got an easier solution. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

2 replies
  1. JWK says:

    Is this point moot given that the judge/arbitrator ruling earlier this week. By doing this, might GA be putting its own foot up its own Arse?
    That wasn’t good enough for http://www.pierceatwood.com/files/77448_2015-06-19%20Order%20re%20GA%20Motion%20to%20Dismiss%20(W4954104x7AC2E).pdf Friday:
    “Georgia has failed to carry its burden because it has provided no evidence — none — supporting its claims.
    “To the contrary, the few facts before me at this stage of the proceeding support the conclusion that it is plausible that a minimum flow decree is not the only effective remedy for Florida and that a cap on Georgia’s consumption would afford adequate relief by increasing flows in the Apalachicola River.”
    But Georgia’s legal maneuver did appear to help eliminate “minimum flow” as a possible court ruling. More from Lancaster:
    “Florida has also indicated that it intends to pursue the latter [consumption cap] remedy and has disclaimed any intention to seek a decree establishing a minimum flow requirement. It may be that Florida has done so to keep its case alive by sidestepping the need to join the United States as a party, but it is allowed to do so. …
    “Having voluntarily narrowed its requested relief and shouldered the burden of proving that the requested relief is appropriate, it appears that Florida’s claim will live or die based on whether Florida can show that a consumption cap is justified and will afford adequate relief.”
    The discovery phase of the case will continue, though the states continue to talk behind the scenes — at Lancaster’s urging — about a settlement.Report

    Reply
  2. henry_bruce says:

    That 750 cfs number was arrived at over 50 years ago and calculated on a slide rule by EPD.  It’s purpose was to keep the dissolved oxygen in the river above a specified level at Whitesburg, I believe it’s 6 mg/l.   Historically, prior to Lanier, the flow at P’tree Ck. could be significantly less during droughts than the 750 cfs standard that was established.  The USGS used to maintain a “real-time” DO monitor at Whitesburg which could be accessed on the net.Report

    Reply

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