Sewer upgrade work hits major milestone in quest for clean water

Atlanta leaders and environmentalists celebrated last week as a $150 million phase in federally required sewer upgrades was completed: construction of a once controversial wastewater storage facility and repair of more than 100 miles of broken sewer lines.

But for Sally Bethea, head of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, the achievement means something far greater: A major milestone in a nearly two-decades long battle for clean water in Atlanta.

Bethea remembers the days heavy rainfall would overwhelm Atlanta’s sewer system, flooding the city’s creeks and rivers with raw sewage and trash. The ongoing pollution rendered the Chattahoochee River a “filthy cesspool that was a chronic public health threat,” she said.

Nearly 20 years ago, her organization was part of a lawsuit against the city because of the rampant overflows and pollution. That legal challenge led to two federal orders requiring Atlanta to spend billions upgrading its sewer infrastructure.

Under former Mayor Shirley Franklin, self-dubbed “the sewer mayor,” the city completed much of the work required under the first order by 2008. Finishing the Peachtree Creek Capacity Relief Project is another major step towards satisfying the second order, which had an original target completion date of July 2014.

“This deadline means a whole lot to me personally and our organization,” Bethea said, crediting joint efforts between city leaders, state and federal agencies and environmental groups. “…The job is not totally done but this is a truly significant milestone and our waterways are cleaner, healthier because of so many players coming together.”

Franklin said without the lawsuit, she doubts Atlantans would’ve agreed to help finance the nearly $2 billion in upgrades to the system. The work has led to a more than 90 percent drop in sewage spill volume, according to the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management.

“Had it not been for the consent decree, I don’t think people would’ve believed we needed to do this, because there is always something else people prefer to do,” Franklin said. “It’s expensive and it’s unseen. People take clean water for granted.”

Federal authorities approached her soon after Franklin took office in 2002 with concerns the city wasn’t taking the consent decrees seriously, she said. Franklin then mobilized financing and procurement plans to meet crucial 2014 deadlines.

“It’s a huge accomplishment for the city,” she said of the latest milestone. “It’s a perfect case of everyone pulling in the same direction.”

Mayor Kasim Reed said the city remains committed to complying with the federal orders and thanked Atlantans for supporting the improvements with a municipal option sales tax.

“The Department of Watershed Management worked extremely hard to meet this goal and improve Atlanta’s infrastructure,” Reed said in a press release. “I thank the city’s residents for their continued patience since the inception of the consent decree.”

The Peachtree Creek facility — a massive wastewater tank and pump station — is one of many projects in the federally ordered work to be completed. City officials say that the 10-million-gallon wastewater storage tank, located near Cheshire Bridge and Liddell Drive, will relieve chronic overflows in that part of the city.

But it was met with controversy in its early stages. Nearby residents were opposed to the project, and worried the tank — and its potential odors — would harm property values. The storage tank primarily treats inflow from sewers in northern DeKalb County, thus some were opposed to Atlanta shouldering the costs of the work.

The project and related sewer line repair was completed ahead of schedule and on a $150 million budget — costing $50 million less than anticipated, city officials said.

Watershed Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina praised the progress, which had its greatest strides under Franklin and has continued with Reed.

“The City of Atlanta has come a long way from where we were 15 years ago,” she said. “With Mayor Reed and his focus on sustainability and strict compliance with regulatory agencies and being the best in class … we are focusing on what the community needs, what our environment needs, and the whole economic vitality of the region.”

Much more remains to be done, especially in the most troubled parts of the city including Proctor Creek, Bethea cautioned.

Citing undue stress on ratepayers, who are already paying some of the highest water and sewer rates in the country, Atlanta was awarded a 13-year extension to complete the remaining work by 2027.

Macrina said the city has less than 20 percent of required upgrades to complete by that deadline.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.