Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Atlanta: A Clean Water Success Story

The last decade has seen a remarkable success story unfold in the City of Atlanta, a success story that has had profound repercussions for the City’s future and that of the entire Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin. It’s the product of billions of dollars in spending, the unrelenting patience of Atlanta residents and the expertise and hard work of thousands of people.

It has not come cheap. Atlantans are paying among the highest water/sewer rates of any major metropolitan area in the nation. But what they have gotten in return is priceless: cleaner and safer rivers and streams for Atlantans and our downstream neighbors.

Cleaner rivers and streams
It’s easy to forget where Atlanta has been: frightening headlines, millions of dollars in fines, human waste floating through the City’s creeks. In June, 1997, an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution entitled, “A Tide of Pollution That Keeps on Flowing,” contained this paragraph: “The three-mile long Clear Creek, which begins in Piedmont Park, flows through the Ansley Park golf course and empties into Peachtree Creek, is an example of how badly the city’s streams have suffered … The stream is often carpeted with toilet paper, condoms, sanitary napkins and other debris spewing from the CSO upstream. Needles and syringes, some still filled with blood or other substances, are found occasionally in the creek.” Virtually every week saw a new similar story.

“These stories are not fiction,” says Sally Bethea, executive director of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (UCR), which, in 1995, sued the City for violations of the state and federal Clean Water Acts. “There were regular health advisories. Residents complained they couldn’t go into their backyards because the smell from the creeks was so strong.” Mayor Shirley Franklin was elected shortly after the signing of two consent decrees mandating that the City reduce combined and sanitary sewer overflows and make improvements to its treatment plants.

“We could have whined and complained,” she says. “But that wouldn’t have gotten the work done, and the work had to be done. So we came up with a plan to do the work and then we implemented it.”

Twelve years after that AJC article appeared, its author, environmental reporter Charles Seabrook joined Mayor Franklin, Department of Watershed Management Commissioner Rob Hunter, City officials and environmental activists to munch on hors d’ouvres and sip punch in a CSO facility. “I never thought I would see this day,” said Seabrook, who served as Master of Ceremonies for the party celebrating the completion of the West Area CSO Tunnel and, with it, the first consent decree.

That tunnel, along with other CSO projects and SSO projects under the ongoing First Amended Consent Decree, have reduced the number of sewer spills into Atlanta’s rivers by 75 percent and the volume of those spills by almost 90 percent.

Sewer capacity relief
Besides the obvious health hazards, Atlanta faced another serious concern because of its antiquated sewer system. Sewers too small to support the City’s astounding growth from 1970 on would regularly back up and overflow. The problem became so acute that, in 2003, the State Environmental Protection Division said that failure to reduce pollution could subject Atlanta to water and sewer system connection moratoriums. In other words, no new development would be allowed. Such moratoriums can have dire consequences for a City’s tax base and ability to generate revenue.

Capacity relief projects undertaken as part of Clean Water Atlanta have nullified that threat and led to an estimated $17.7 billion worth of development that might not have been permitted without the increased capacity. The capacity certification program has allowed development to proceed for 53,100 multi-family units, 24,200 single-family homes, and 2,100 commercial and other non-residential units. (The $17.7 billion is based on estimated selling prices and does not include the economic contribution associated with new businesses and residents.)

Paying for clean water
The UCR lawsuit, which was targeted at the City’s combined sewer overflow (CSO) systems and settled via consent decree in November 1998, prompted a second complaint, this one by the state and federal environmental agencies that targeted Atlanta’s sanitary sewer systems and problems at the treatment plants. That complaint resulted in a 1999 settlement that created what was termed the First Amended Consent Decree. (Atlanta was already under a state consent order mandating improvements in its systems.)

The Consent Decrees were brutal, both in their scope and in their abbreviated deadlines; 2007 (extended by agreement to 2008) for the CSO program and 2014 for the sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) program. Other cities under similar consent decrees were given from 20 to 30 years to implement their solutions. Under Mayor Franklin’s leadership, Clean Water Atlanta, a plan to comply with the consent decrees through a massive overhaul of the City’s sewer system, was born.

Initially, City officials were counting on paying one-third of the program cost through water/sewer rates, one-third through state money and one-third through federal grants. Unfortunately, Clean Water Atlanta came into being during a period of nationwide disinvestment in infrastructure, and the burden of paying for the program fell largely to the City’s residents. Two successive packages of rate increases and voter approval (twice) of a one-cent Municipal Option Sales Tax have provided the bulk of the Clean Water Atlanta financing.

Atlantans are paying those rates despite the fact that the economic crisis has produced an unemployment rate of 10.4 percent in the City, and almost one-quarter of its households are at or below the poverty level. The current monthly water and sewer bill for an average household is more than $120 (6,000 gallons). A household using 10,000 gallons per month has a bill in excess of $215. The MOST indirectly adds an estimated $25 to the monthly bill.

The five cities with the highest water/sewer rates in the country are Seattle, Atlanta, San Francisco, San Diego and Austin, Texas. The other cities have significantly higher median household incomes than Atlanta.

Completed and ongoing projects
Under Clean Water Atlanta, the City has already:
Constructed the 8-mile-long, 16-foot-diameter Nancy Creek Tunnel, which has reduced SSOs in the North Atlanta/Dunwoody area by 70 percent (1,000 overflows in 2000; fewer than 300 in 2008);
Built the Custer Avenue Storage and Dechlorination Facility, which can store up to 10 million gallons of combined sewage for transfer to the South River treatment plant;
Separated 33 miles of combined sewers, reducing stormwater-related overflows in three sewer basins;
Purchased about 2,000 acres of streamside property in eight metro area counties for protection in perpetuity; and
Constructed the 8.5-mile-long, 24 foot-diameter West Area CSO Tunnel, which can store up to 177 million gallons of combined sewage for transfer to a dedicated treatment plant.
Additionally, though it was not required to do so under the consent decrees, the City has replaced about 100 miles of water mains that were aged and leaking.

Infrastructure programs currently ongoing include:
The Sewer System Evaluation Survey and related rehab, under which the City is inspecting every inch of its 1,600 miles of sewer pipe and repairing those that are cracked, leaking or otherwise damaged (to date, 1,287 of a total of 1,580 miles, 82 percent, have been inspected; 314 miles of the estimated 607 that will need repair have been completed);
Cleaning sewers under Operation Clean Sewer, a program to reduce spills associated with stormwater infiltration and blockages from debris and grease, with a goal (exceeded) of 25 percent of the system per year;
Design and construction of a 2.5-billion-gallon drinking water reservoir in Northwest Atlanta, a $190 million project construction of which will likely be accelerated as the City attempts to mitigate the effects of Judge Paul Magnuson’s order in the Tri-State Water Wars;
Grease management inspections that kept 1.15 million gallons of grease of out the system in the first quarter of 2009
Construction of the South River Tunnel, which will capture and store sanitary sewer overflows in South Atlanta;
Construction of new water mains in the Georgia Tech Midtown area;
Meter replacement program, under which the City is replacing or retrofitting 150,000 meters with Automated Meter Reading capability;
Implementation of the Valve & Hydrant Program, under which the City is locating and identifying its valves and hydrants, making necessary repairs and collecting information for inclusion in a Geographic Information System;
Reduction of backlog in the past three years from 3,100 meter leaks to under 100 and from 2,400 service leaks to 150; this stepped-up leak repair program has resulted in the repair of about 750 leaks per month, the same number United Water was repairing a year when it was operating the City’s drinking water system from 1999-2003.
Development and implementation of an upgraded backflow compliance program;
Implementation of a large meter asset management program in January 2009;
Reduction in the number of boil water advisories from nine in 2002 to zero in 2008 and one in 2009;
Design of a number of transmission mains to improve service in a number of South Atlanta communities.

That the projects have been completed on time and on budget, is nothing short of amazing, according to Judge Thomas Thrash, the U.S. District Court Judge who oversees compliance with the consent decrees. “Frankly, I expected excuses, delays, obstruction, incompetence,” the judge said in a 2008 status hearing. “And, under Mayor Franklin’s administration, none of that’s happened. The work’s been done. It’s been done on time, I think pretty much done within budget. And it really is a remarkable accomplishment.”

Population growth and usage reduction
From 2000 to 2008, Atlanta experienced unprecedented population growth, adding almost 30 percent to its population. But it has done so with an emphasis on proper resource management – smart growth policies, infill housing instead of sprawl, extensive capital investment in its systems, a diligent leak detection and repair program and conservation. In fact, Clean Water Atlanta served as a launching pad for green initiatives like construction of a green roof at City Hall, land acquisition for parks, energy conservation projects and a Green Building Ordinance currently pending before the City Council.

A severe drought that began in 2007 and ended earlier this year prompted Atlanta to take serious steps to further reduce water use. The City declared Level 4 restrictions – the strongest – several months before the State implemented them and created a number of conservation programs, distribution of water conservation kits, flush valves and “instant-off” devices for faucets; free water audits; rain barrel construction programs; educational workshops for residents, landscapers and large users; toilet rebates; new toilet installations for low-income, elderly customers; and establishment of the Save Water Atlanta Team to enforce watering restrictions. It already had put in place a three-tiered conservation rate structure that rewards low use.

All those initiatives combined to help Atlantans reduce their drinking water usage by more than 20 percent over the eight years starting in 2000 despite the population boom. And, while Clean Water Atlanta is an infrastructure program, it also is one of Atlanta’s strongest and most extensive green programs.

A model for infrastructure rebuilding
In infrastructure terms, Clean Water Atlanta has become a 21st century model for water and sewer system rebuilding. The program has resulted in cleaner rivers and streams, allowed development to proceed and been accomplished on time and on budget despite oppressively tight deadlines.

“Without Mayor Franklin’s support and encouragement, the Clean Water Atlanta program never would have happened,” Sally Bethea says. While continued investment must be made to finish all the work by 2014, the City and its neighborhoods are already benefiting, thanks to a healthier environment.”

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