State environmental officials will vote Wednesday to allow less Chattahoochee River water, at times, to flow below Atlanta, a proposal that angers downstream communities that fear a return to the 1990s when the big city’s sewage discharges polluted their lives.
The vote comes as Carroll, Coweta, Douglas and Heard counties embrace the Chattahoochee as never before. Carroll County, for example, has spent $6 million buying up riverfront land, building boat ramps and creating beautiful parks that enhance the county’s image, economy and quality of life.
“We have tolerated metro Atlanta’s destruction of that river for years and we expect improvements, if anything, to the river,” said Kevin Jackson, a Carroll County commissioner whose district an hour southwest of Atlanta straddles the Chattahoochee. “They’re talking about diluting the water. How is that an improvement? We don’t want to recreate in metro Atlanta’s — whatever you want to call it.”
Jackson and others will have a final opportunity Tuesday to tell Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ board members why the river’s flow of 750 cubic feet per second through Atlanta should not be changed. The board votes Wednesday. DNR officials say the rule change would have little impact on the river’s health.
“We did modeling to support the request, and the monitoring data supported that the water quality was still good,” said Jac Capp, who heads watershed protection for the agency’s Environmental Protection Division. “We value the river tremendously and the folks downstream of Atlanta tremendously.”
‘Deal behind our backs?’
Locals, long suspicious of the motives of Atlanta’s water czars, see the lower-flow plan as a way to keep more water in Lake Lanier to slake what they view as the metro region’s insatiable growth. Hoarding water upstream, particularly during times of drought, could also keep the ever-precious resource from Alabama and Florida, downstream users of the Chattahoochee who’ve sued Georgia over the “equitable apportionment” of the river.
Georgia officials “think putting 750 cfs into the river is wasting water,” said Jerry Stober, a retired fisheries scientist who raises cattle in Carroll County. “They’re trying to fix something that’s not broken. Are they trying to cut some kind of deal behind our backs?”
Downpours in Atlanta once caused the antiquated sewage and stormwater systems to routinely overflow, spilling untreated poop into the Chattahoochee and its tributaries. Stober and others recall the acrid, ammonia smells emanating from the river that also carried used condoms, syringes, plastic bottles, tennis balls, car tires and other junk downstream to Lake West Point.
Fish weren’t fit for consumption. Swimmers were warned to stay clear. Cuts got infected. Carroll County wanted to withdraw water directly from the river, like Atlanta, Gwinnett County and other upstream communities do. But the cost to treat the nasty water was prohibitively expensive, so the county built a reservoir instead.
Atlanta’s sewage, which prompted numerous Clean Water Act violations, wasn’t the Chattahoochee’s only problem. The 68-mile stretch of river between Atlanta and West Point Lake was also polluted by discharges from municipalities and factories, as well as runoff from farms and construction sites.
In 1995, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper sued Atlanta to force the city to clean up its sewage mess. Ratepayers covered the nearly $2 billion bill.
River undergoes recovery
“It’s a lot healthier than what it was; it’s beautiful,” said Tim Lawson, a river guide who runs a kayak and canoe business in Whitesburg. “You’ve even got bald eagles here at McIntosh Reserve. When the river’s clear you can see three or four of them fishing.”
Heavy rains last week turned the river fast and muddy. An occasional kayaker rushed past the reserve, a Carroll County park along the Chattahoochee. On summer weekends, Lawson says, hundreds of canoers, kayakers and fishermen take to the river. A Duluth Boy Scout troop ran the river on Saturday. A lower-flowing Chattahoochee would expose rocks, keep river rats away and hurt business.
“There’s nothing wrong with 750 cfs,” said Lawson, 62, who has lived in the area since 1974. “Leave it alone. (The river) is getting better. I don’t think anybody really knows why they want to cut it down so much.”
Over the past four decades, the EPD and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have maintained a flow of 750 cfs at Peachtree Creek.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the river and its reservoirs, has reduced the flow to 650 cfs on several occasions since 2008. Each lasted between seven weeks and five months. All occurred in winter or spring during the drought years of 2008 and 2011. No damage was done, EPD says, adding that 750 cfs is not a mandated minimum flow.
“The corps, without EPA’s objection, felt like the change could be made without water quality being harmed,” Capp said. “And on the occasions when (the reduction) occurred, the water quality was OK.”
Capp said no request to lower the flow will be made during warm months when kayakers abound and water quality is harder to ensure. That’s little solace to river lovers.
“The times they dipped below 750 cfs were short-term scenarios, so being able to say we can do this on a long-term basis isn’t justification enough to remove this provision,” said Jason Ulseth, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.
Carroll County will soon open another riverfront park. Jackson, the county commissioner, doesn’t want upstream interests despoiling downstream beauty.
“I see people again turning their backs on the southern part of the Chattahoochee River,” he said.
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.