Before catching a flight back to Germany, a tourist took time to snap an iconic Atlanta picture: the skyline reflected in the lake at Piedmont Park.
The park was a quiet oasis that October day, but the man and his wife noticed more than the view. Bobbing along the top of the waters of Lake Clara Meer was a pair of jeans, a Chick-fil-A cup and a lint roller lodged in thick green algae.
The 11.5-acre lake is a vital organ of Atlanta’s largest park, which has become synonymous with the city and has been featured in pitches from the 1996 Olympics to Amazon’s new headquarters. If you’ve been to Atlanta, you’ve likely been to Piedmont Park, and if you’ve been to Piedmont Park, you’ve probably spent time at the lake.
It isn’t easy to keep the lake clean when the park regularly hosts some of the South’s biggest events: Music Midtown, Atlanta Pride, the Atlanta Jazz Festival. But it’s bad for business when a floating pile of trash sometimes creeps in on the edges of Atlanta’s postcard view. The city has invested millions of dollars into the park, including plans to expand the 185-acre property, but the park’s conservancy says this is the “worst” year in recent history for trash in the lake. It’s unclear from interviews and public records if the city of Atlanta is doing enough to protect the lake’s future.
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Municipal lake managers in places like Fort Worth, Texas and Tacoma, Washington told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they deal with the same trash problems that plague Clara Meer. Atlanta has entrusted Clara Meer’s upkeep to a contractor, but with the vendor not responding to requests for comment, it’s hard to determine what’s being done here.
“We’re confident in the work that they do, and they haven’t raised any red flags,” Atlanta parks and recreation communication manager Michael Calevski said about the lake contractor.
‘All the drains lead to the lake’
One recent near-freezing November morning, about a dozen volunteers gathered for the Piedmont Park Conservancy’s annual lake cleanup, an event normally handled by the nonprofit’s staff and the Department of Natural Resources. The Conservancy is a donor-funded group that works with the city to protect the massive green space that is Piedmont Park.
After seeing “such a heavy amount of trash this past summer,” Conservancy spokeswoman Amy Dietrich said they invited community members to join the cleanup for the first time.
“The trash typically ends up on the ground somewhere, and if it reaches any of our drains, then all the drains lead to the lake,” said Dietrich. She has witnessed a slowly creeping progression of lake trash in her two years working for the Conservancy.
“Over the years it’s gradually increasing in trash in the lake,” she said. “So, if it’s gradual, then this is the worst.”
The AJC requested records about the lake’s management from the city on Oct. 29. Four days later, the contractor noted for the first time in a report how much garbage — “three bags of floating trash” — it had pulled from the lake.
During the Conservancy’s cleanup two weeks later, volunteers pulled cigarette packs, beer cans and a bicycle seat from the lake and its banks, filling at least six garbage bags.
Ilandi Badenhorst stood on a dock that chilly morning as the rapper Drake thumped through her headphones, fishing out granola bar wrappers, tennis balls and an emptied Bacardi rum bottle. Badenhorst has lived about a block away from the park for a couple years and volunteered because seeing the trash bunch up makes her angry.
“People see it and think that’s gross,” the 26-year-old said, watching a bird in the water nearby. “How sad is it that this duck is bombarded with trash?”
The top complaint this past summer submitted through the Conservancy’s newly-created online portal was about trash or excessive algae in the lake, Dietrich said. To help with the problem, the nonprofit installed 25 new recycling cans in November through a $30,000 grant from Coca-Cola.
The problems for Clara Meer are not new. According to a 1987 AJC story, a major cleanup effort was made after the lake had become an eyesore “flooded with trash and debris.” In 2009, workers scrambled to rid the lake of dead fish after an algae bloom depleted the water of oxygen before a Paul McCartney concert.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in late October appointed John Dargle as the new parks and recreation commissioner to oversee the development and maintenance of the city’s parks, recreation centers and facilities. He also has the authority to review partnerships, including Estate Management Service’s contract for Clara Meer that is up for renewal early next year.
Reports from the contractor paint an unclear picture of how the lake is doing, making management of the lake almost as murky as its waters.
The city says it has no state-mandated responsibility to look after the lake, but took control of it in 2011 after the Conservancy felt it couldn’t properly care for it anymore. Atlanta’s parks department found the work was beyond their scope of expertise and hired Estate Management Services in 2013.
Calevski said the contractor has “consistently provided the best work and also at the most economical price.”
Estate Management Services quoted the city about $5,500 this year to visit the lake at least 24 times a year, according to documents The AJC obtained that show how the contractor maintains the lake. The company not only maintains Clara Meer, but five other lakes around Atlanta, and quoted the city $14,205 this year to clean the water and manage the algae at all six of them.
The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The AJC requested records for the past two years, but the city said it only began receiving reports from the contractor in March 2018. The city’s contract doesn’t require reports be written by the Brunswick contractor, who makes the 300-mile drive from Glynn County to the heart of Atlanta about every two weeks. A review of the records show many incomplete, sometimes blank, reports of the contractor’s visit to the lake. In the report from a May 2 visit, an employee of the contractor reported that the “water is very nasty and stinks.”
These reports mostly center on trash pick-up, visual algae levels and whether equipment used to reduce algae is working. They don’t include a basic standard of water quality, like the Ph level; city parks officials didn’t know it either when asked recently.
Along with the contractor, Calevski said the parks staff works diligently to keep the lake free of debris and brush.
“Whether it be festivals or different events that are constantly going on in Piedmont Park, we understand that at times it’s not looking as good as our expectations are,” Calevski said. “We put one foot in front of the other and work to care for and maintain that lake.”
‘Trash all the time’
Fort Worth, Texas, has a couple lakes similar to Clara Meer: Echo Lake is nearly 17 acres and, like Clara Meer, sits inside a park where people fish. Ten-acre Lake Como was built five years before Piedmont Park as a recreation resort but is now surrounded by developed land.
About 15 to 20 percent of the Fort Worth parks staff’s time is spent managing lake pollution, said Clint Wyatt, the district superintendent for the city’s parks department.
Wyatt’s staff picks up litter in the park twice a week and goes out on a boat about once a month to pick out trash from the lake.
The only regular pick-up the city of Atlanta does at Clara Meer is when the contractor visits roughly every two weeks. But even that schedule isn’t clear. For instance, in The AJC’s request for reports of the lake’s bimonthly maintenance, none show a visit during July.
“You need scheduled cleanup, at least once a week,” said James Gawel, associate professor of environmental chemistry and engineering with the University of Washington.
Wapato Lake, a 34-acre lake inside a park in Tacoma, has had two cars fished out of it recently, said Gawel, who helps manage the lake.
But the Clara Meer contractor’s routine of coming about every two weeks sounds right to Laura Costadone, a PhD student of environmental science and management at Portland State University. Still, when shown a picture of Clara Meer taken a couple weeks after the contractor reported visiting in October, “it seems like a lot of garbage in the lake,” she said.
In Minneapolis, the city’s parks and recreation board is in charge of all neighborhood lakes and parks, said Deb Pilger, the board’s director of environmental management.
She and her staff use barley straw to prevent rampant algae growth, and to reduce trash in the lakes they use low-lying grass beds and technology that traps sediment and litter before making it to the water. To get people invested in the future of lakes they sponsor youth fishing events and an Adopt-A-Drain program that tasks volunteers with clearing trash from drains so it doesn’t make its way into the water system.
Atlanta officials did not answer specific questions about the contractor’s maintenance techniques and the contractor didn’t respond to requests for comment, so it’s unclear whether they are employing any of these methods at Clara Meer.
It’s not all city programs and sponsored events that keep an urban lake clean, it’s also people like Michelle Shockey and her husband picking up litter at the Piedmont lake when they came for their annual fishing competition on Memorial Day.
The 32-year-old said she and her husband always noticed the trash — “trash all the time and it was rather unfortunate.”
The park is special to them not only because they got married overlooking the lake, but because it is also a way to connect with their fellow Atlantans.
“Going to Piedmont Park was kind of like our own ‘semi-private’ fishing hole with each of us walking away with at least one catch. Once our son looks like he’s ready and patient enough for some good fishing, there is no doubt in my mind that Piedmont Park will be the place we’ll go.”