Opinion: Trails atop sewers could prevent spills

Intact underground pipes offer everyone a way to enjoy the beauty of our area’s creeks and rivers. When sewers collapse, those same trails alert walkers to call for help right away.

Some of Atlanta’s most popular walking trails have a surprise underneath: sewer lines buried deep underground. This is the case for many South Fork Conservancy (SFC) paths which meander along the banks of the South Fork of Peachtree Creek.

Over the years, watershed and parks departments in DeKalb County and the city of Atlanta have been good partners in letting SFC use their sewer construction and maintenance roads to create public nature trails. Sewer lines are commonly built along streams to take advantage of gravity, the natural downhill flow of water to move sewage toward downstream septic treatment plants. Yet most neighbors have no idea these attractive trails are built on top of critical sanitary infrastructure.

Sometimes walkers discover early warnings of sewer problems that, undetected, can cause serious contamination and require costly repairs and cleanup. Just a few years ago, South Fork Conservancy trail builders discovered eroded sewer trunks near Emory and the Centers for Disease Control. We alerted DeKalb County, which quickly sent crews to avert a serious collapse. That’s a good reason to build trails above sewers.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Unfortunately, there was no trail where one sewer main line ruptured in DeKalb County this summer. During some of the hottest days of summer, from July 5 to August 1,more than 5.4 million gallons of human waste and other contaminants surged from a broken, 2-foot diameter pipe and spilled into a DeKalb County waterway.

Day after day, raw sewage flowed downstream. DeKalb County watershed workers say the massive sewer break happened after heavy rains eroded the riverbank, eating away the land and rock that had protected it.

The ruptured trunk was just upstream from DeKalb’s Sugar Creek Golf and Tennis Club, across the river from a neighborhood of single-family homes near Bouldercrest Road and directly behind the Church of Christ at Bouldercrest. Those neighbors could have enjoyed using walking trails on top of the sewer line. Could they have noticed the collapse? Almost certainly. But nobody reported it, because no such trail exists there.

Instead, DeKalb County workers found evidence of the contamination during routine monitoring of water samples. “Several rain events, including flash flooding, caused fluctuations in the sample readings and poor conditions for walking the riverbank,” said DeKalb County spokesman Andrew Cauthen in a reply to my question.

A search led watershed maintenance workers to Bouldercrest Road. “After walking the riverbank for approximately three hours, the break was located … in an isolated, wooded area with no public access,” said Cauthen. Once discovered, county crews bypassed the broken line and repaired it within a day.

But the problem of eroding creek banks threatening sewer lines persists. It promises more contamination and more costly emergency repairs. July’s massive, long-lasting spill into the South River is proof that building public access on hiking trails atop sewer lines is good public policy. Intact underground pipes offer everyone a way to enjoy the beauty of our area’s creeks and rivers. When sewers collapse from heavy rains, those same trails alert walkers to call for help right away.

Months later, I drove south on Bouldercrest Road again. Damp leaves covered the scar where emergency workers drove into the bank to repair the spill. Those very tracks could form the base of a new walking trail. I asked the clerks at the Dollar General store if the South River was running clean again. They shrugged. Nobody at the church or the Sugar Creek Golf Course knew anything about the spill.

Days earlier the South Fork Conservancy brought 250 trail users to the creek at Zonolite Park, just off busy Briarcliff Road. The clear water held our attention as we tossed hundreds of bright yellow rubber ducks into the air. Our annual Creek Rising fundraising party ended with a celebration of the creek and its water. The ducks bobbed along the current, past sandy beaches and old growth trees edging the buried sewer pipes. City Councilmember Alex Wan scooped up the first ducks to cross the finish line. Triumphant winners whooped and spun in the sand. The clear water rambled on through Morningside, Buckhead and on to the Chattahoochee River: the drinking water source for millions of us.

Creek Rising this year raised more money than ever before, funding our mission to build simple creekside trails on top of existing sewer lines. Thoughtful urban trail design could bring this kind of attention to other urban rivers, too, and the leaky pipes edging them. I know some ducks who would love another race.

Sally Sears is a founding board member of South Fork Conservancy.