Georgia clean water advocates highlight progress, call for more action

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

In switch, coalition’s annual ‘Dirty Dozen’ report focuses on decades of success improving waterways

Georgia waterways are cleaner than they were decades ago thanks to the Clean Water Act, which turned 50 this year, but the state’s wetlands, streams and rivers still suffer from pollution and other threats, according to advocates.

The Georgia Water Coalition’s annual “Dirty Dozen” report traditionally shines a light on what the group considers to be the worst offenses against Georgia waters. This year the coalition of conservationist individuals and organizations instead highlighted the landmark legal cases that resulted in significant improvements to the state’s waterways while calling attention to ongoing issues.

Among the most pressing concerns highlighted in the latest report, released Tuesday, are the potential impact of a proposed mining site near the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia; runoff from land application of treated wastewater, such as the system used by Dalton Utilities in northeast Georgia; and Georgia Power’s unlined coal ash pits across the state.

ExploreRome is grappling with toxic ‘forever chemicals’ fouling waterways

Joe Cook, the author of the report, emphasized that most of the cases were brought or initiated by citizens or grassroots groups. For example, it was the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper that filed a lawsuit against the city of Atlanta under the Clean Water Act’s “citizen suit” provision in 1995, which ended in a consent decree and $2 billion in upgrades to the city’s sewer and storm water infrastructure.

Since the 1990s, the volume of city sewer overflows had been reduced 99% and bacteria levels in the Chattahoochee are 80% lower, the report said. As a result, wildlife has rebounded and people are flocking to the river for fishing, kayaking and recreation.

“The Clean Water Act has given citizens a powerful tool to set things right ... to force state and federal agencies to actually enforce the law, and that is what struck me most about all the cases that are included in the dirty dozen report this year,” Cook said. “In most of those cases, citizens are the ones that filed the complaints or filed the lawsuits and got things corrected.”

Cook called for the continued protection of the Clean Water Act, which is being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court, and for more robust state funding to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to step up enforcement.

For the current fiscal year, $118.2 million was appropriated to EPD among, state, federal and other sources for environmental protection. Records provided by the EPD show the state’s environmental protection program funding has remained fairly static over the past 10 years, hovering between $110 million and $126 million from 2013 to 2023, despite Georgia’s growing population.