South River, paddlers, may 19, 2019
Paddlers are advised to avoid prolonged contact with water in the South River as they traveled the river south of Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area in May 2019. File/Photo courtesy of Jackie Echols

By David Pendered

A polluted river isn’t like a pothole – it doesn’t shriek for attention every time you drive over it. The polluted South River is quiet like that, though now its advocates are calling on DeKalb County to stop dumping raw sewage into the river.

South River, paddlers, may 19, 2019
Paddlers enjoyed one of the popular excursions on the South River, traveling in May along a stretch of waterway located within Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area. Credit

The South River Watershed Alliance has notified DeKalb County of its intent to file a lawsuit under the nation’s Clean Water Act. The alliance intends to ask a federal judge to order DeKalb County to comply with a court-ordered federal consent decree and make the fixes to the sewerage system to which DeKalb County agreed in 2010.

The alliance contends DeKalb County has failed to meet a deadline of Dec. 20, 2017 to establish a countywide hydraulic model to show the sewer capacity for the entire watershed during rain and dry periods. In addition, the alliance observes DeKalb County has notified the federal government that it will not meet a June 20, 2020 deadline to complete all repairs in priority areas.

These measures are cited in the federal consent decree signed in 2010 by three governments – DeKalb, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Environmental Protection Division.

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond’s office released a statement Monday saying Thurmond established compliance with the consent decree as a priority following his election in 2016. The county is aware of the alliance’s intent to sue, according to the statement, which observes:

  • “Shortly after taking office in January 2017, DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond prioritized the county’s wastewater collection and treatment system and elevated the importance of fully cooperating with the letter and spirit of the Consent Decree. …
    “The county is working diligently to comply with the Consent Decree and meets quarterly with both EPA and EPD regarding Consent Decree progress and how best to achieve its requirements.”
Turtle, South River, May 19. 2019
Small creatures that inhabit the South River are visible to the watchful eye during a trip in May. Credit: South River Watershed Alliance

The spills cited by the South River Watershed Alliance are no secret. The county routinely emails notices of sewer spills to those who reeuest the information.

That said, the alliance contends DeKalb County does not always report sewage spills with in seven days – this spreadsheet covers two pages. Another report is fairly dramatic – 20 pages are filled with reports of about 750 sewage spills reported from July 2014 to May 2019.

The South River Watershed Alliance is suing under the federal Clean Water Act because it’s not a party to the consent decree. In contrast, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper was a party in the lawsuit that resulted in the federal consent decree that resulted in ongoing repairs to Atlanta’s sewerage system. That participation enabled the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper to play a role in monitoring progress.

DeKalb County’s defense of complaints about its sewage releases has been similar to Atlanta’s former defense – the sewerage system is old, leaks and can’t meet the demand of a burgeoning population. Rain events worsen the woes as stormwater runoff further overwhelms the system.

Jackie Echols, president of the alliance’s board, said Monday the time has arrived for DeKalb County to stop dumping raw sewage into waterways and commit to a step-by-step timeline. Without a schedule for interim repairs, the work won’t get done on time, Echols said.

In a statement Echols observed:

  • “After a decade of stalling and a much longer period of inaction, SRWA does not anticipate any change in the next sixty days and is committed to taking necessary legal action against DeKalb County.
  • “DeKalb County must stop using the South River and neighborhood streams as sewage dumps, and the fact that it rains in Georgia is not an acceptable excuse.”
South River, B:W paddlers, May 19, 2019
Paddlers on the South River see an array of grasslands and forested areas typified by a mix of oak, hickory and pine trees during a trip in May. Credit: South River Watershed Alliance

The statement from Thurmond’s office provides these specific details of DeKalb County’s efforts to eliminate spills:

  • “In 2017, the county’s sewer cleaning efforts were expanded to include major trunk lines for the first time in more than 50 years. Additionally, more than 5.1 tons of debris were removed from the sewer system; easement cleaning and inspection contract were re-instituted with more than 1,800 creek crossings inspected and 3,000 manhole covers replaced.
  • “In August 2018, the Board of Commissioners approved CEO Thurmond’s request for $105.2 million for sewer repairs that prioritize reducing spills and maintenance in 2019-2020.

The statement also addressed delays at the Snapfinger Wastewater Treatment Facility Expansion project. The work was to be complete in 2016, according to a Dirty Dozen report by the Georgia Water Coalition. The project now is 57 percent complete and due to open in February 2022, at a capacity of 55 million gallons a day.

The statement provided this reason for the delay:

  • “Work on the expansion and upgrade of the Snapfinger wastewater treatment plant began in 2012 with clearing and blasting of the site under phase 1. Because of several issues including residents’ concerns about the effects of blasting and performance issues with the selected contractor, work was delayed until August 2016. Due to changes in the landscape of the county since the beginning of construction, changes were made to the design and sequence of construction in 2016, causing additional delay. The project is on schedule to meet a completion date of February 2022.”
South River, rivers alive 2
Volunteers loaded the red canoe with debris gathered from the South River during a Rivers Alive clean-up event. Items included tires, a plastic chair and other debris. File/Credit: South River Watershed Alliance

One reason the required fixes affecting the South River may have been easy for some to overlook is because the South River is just that – south.

It’s far from home for most of the people in metro Atlanta. It springs from the ground near Atlanta’s airport and isn’t really heard from again.

That’s partly because of the way little rivers create bigger rivers. South River helps create the Ocmulgee River, which helps create the Altamaha River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean at Darien, near Brunswick – as North America’s third-largest contributor of fresh water into the Atlantic, according to a report in newgeorgiaencyclopedia.

Pollution woes in these rivers in this system have been cited by the Georgia Water Coalition. The coalition’s annual Dirty Dozen report included Altamaha River in 2015 and 2018; South River in 2016; and Ocmulgee River in 2018.

The convergence of concerns about the South River and its impacts on it streams and communities farther to the south prompted this comment from Altamaha Riverkeeper Jen Hilburn:

  • “DeKalb County continues to fail to improve their sanitary sewage system even under Federal Order. This failure has significant impacts in the largest river system in Georgia, encompassing approximately a quarter of the state.  DeKalb’s raw sewage flows hundreds of miles before reaching our coast and the status quo is unacceptable.”

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...

Join the Conversation


  1. Thank you, David, for reporting on this ongoing sewage overflow threat to the South River, a critical life-sustaining river for all Georgians! And thank you, Jackie, for maintaining your 10-year vigilance to protect this valuable watershed! As a DeKalb resident, I am saddened to know how slow this process has been. Let’s do whatever it takes to speed up these improvements and protect what’s left of our quality of life.

  2. I salute the alliance for their diligence. The irony is that the sewer problems in south DeKalb are not due to overdevelopment. In fact, due to the spills south DeKalb has been prevented from growing. State Farm is building a million square feet of space in Dunwoody. Surrounding areas of City of Decatur are building thousands of apartments. Yet, small builders such as myself are prevented from building individual new home construction. Most large home builders won’t go near that area. Yet, this area needs new development more than any other area of DeKalb.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.