Moderated by Tom Sabulis
The Chattahoochee River is so important in so many ways to so many people. Today, a nonprofit caretaker group charges that the state has signed off on a harmful level of sewage discharge in Forsyth County. But the Georgia Environmental Protection Division says wastewater levels are different in rivers and lakes, and insists that Forsyth’s permit is just as stringent as others.
Commenting is open below.
By Sally Bethea
Sewage gushes into the Chattahoochee River, raising the levels of bacteria and cancer-causing contaminants to such heights that swimming, drinking and fishing becomes dangerous. Fishermen, boaters and families are forced to stay away from the water. Kayakers wear nose plugs and wetsuits but still get sick after entering the Chattahoochee. Communities that rely on the river for water must pay more to treat it and make it safe to drink.
This scene is from 1989. Fast-forward 24 years, and great strides have been taken to make the river cleaner and safer. But today, Forsyth County is taking a major step backward, and the result has again put at risk the waterway and the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has issued a permit to Forsyth for a brand-new discharge that will allow millions of gallons of treated sewage to enter the river every day. The permit is 100 times less protective of water quality than the limits set for other discharges in the Atlanta area. Just upstream, the Gwinnett County discharge into Lake Lanier is held to higher standards and tighter limits.
Chattahoochee Riverkeeper has worked for more than four years with state officials and in the courts to change the permit to set stricter limits on the amount of bacteria and phosphorous Forsyth will be allowed to dump into the river.
Of course, it’s legal to pump some treated sewage into the waterway. But Forsyth should be held to the same treatment standards as Gwinnett and other metro governments to protect the people who rely on the river.
Instead, Forsyth has spent more than $500,000 of taxpayers’ money to oppose more protective limits. Meanwhile, according to the county, the costs associated with a more protective permit would translate at most to just $3 a month per ratepayer — about as much as a person might pay for two bottles of water.
A stronger permit would make for a healthier and safer Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, the first federally designated “water trail” in the country. A stronger permit would ensure the river continues to bring millions of dollars in recreation and tourism spending to Georgia. And a stronger permit would save treatment costs for municipalities and counties that take water from the river downstream from Forsyth’s discharge point.
But Georgia’s EPD won’t step up and take the simple steps necessary to keep the river safe. This lax approach already has hurt other waterways, including the Ogeechee River, the Altamaha and the Flint, as noted in the 2012 Dirty Dozen Report released last November by the Georgia Water Coalition.
Georgia’s elected leaders are failing to adequately protect one of our most precious and important resources. The people of Georgia, and the rivers they rely on, deserve better.
Sally Bethea is executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental organization.
By Judson H. Turner
There have been some questions about the pollutant limits in a wastewater discharge permit issued by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to the Forsyth County Fowler/Shakerag wastewater facilities. The permit regulates discharge to the Chattahoochee River downstream of Buford Dam.
EPD allows the discharge of treated wastewater to streams, rivers and lakes only under levels and conditions to protect water quality. The waters of the state have always been used to assimilate highly treated discharges under stringent controls. The pollutant levels in the permits differ based on the type of wastewater and the ability of the receiving water to assimilate pollutants.
EPD has developed water quality and water quantity computer models to better understand and predict the effect of various discharges on these complex systems. This information is used to guide EPD in setting permit limits on a site-specific basis.
For most parameters, the Forsyth permit is just as stringent, or more stringent, than other Chattahoochee River discharges. The Forsyth discharge has nutrient limits more stringent than for river discharges from Gwinnett County and city of Atlanta facilities. In addition, the permit is being revised to further tighten limits for fecal coliform. I am confident the final permit will be protective of the Chattahoochee.
It is also important to note that Gwinnett has an additional permit to discharge treated wastewater directly to Lake Lanier. The limits in this permit are more stringent than those in the new Forsyth permit because it is a discharge to a lake. The ability of lakes and streams to assimilate nutrients is different.
EPD protects the water resources of Georgia, including Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee, through a variety of activities. First, EPD establishes designated uses for each water body, such as drinking water, recreation and/or fishing, and the water-quality criteria that will protect those uses.
EPD conducts field monitoring throughout the year to document actual water quality. Seven to 12 times per year, EPD samples 10 locations in Lake Lanier, 7 locations upstream from the lake, and 10 locations in the Chattahoochee River watershed downstream from the lake.
Since 1996, EPD has invested approximately $9 million of federal Clean Water Act funding in various projects in the Upper Chattahoochee River watershed. The projects have been undertaken to improve water quality impacted by nonpoint sources of pollution such as forestry, agriculture and urban activities.
EPD also works closely with other state and federal agencies to optimize understanding and management of water quality and water quantity issues.
The new Forsyth County permit — indeed, all wastewater discharge permits — are written to protect water quality to maintain the designated uses. EPD will continue to ensure that Forsyth and all other dischargers comply with their permit limits and operate their systems to avoid overflows and other upsets, resulting in the protection and stewardship of one of Georgia’s most beloved rivers.
Judson H. Turner is director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.