When the Clean Water Act is applied to American waterways, good things can happen. Our recent report, Waterways Restored: The Clean Water Act's Impact on 15 American Rivers, Lakes and Bays, highlights waterways where the Clean Water Act's protections and improvement provisions have had positive effects. Polluted waterways have been cleaned up, pristine waterways have been preserved, and threatened waterways have been protected. All waterways deserve these opportunities.
In this blog series, we'll showcase individual case studies from the report. The first installment is Georgia's Chattahoochee River.
GEORGIA: Reducing Sewage Heralds Return of Native Species to the Chattahoochee River
A Clean Water Act lawsuit forced the city Atlanta to reduce the amount of raw sewage it dumped into the river, making the river safe for boating and better for wildlife. Photo by U.S. National Park Service.
Atlanta is fairly unique among big American cities in that, because it sits in the headwaters of a major river, its pollution affects the entire length of the river.[i] Atlanta’s sewage discharge has been a primary culprit in the river’s degraded state.[ii]
The river was clean enough for swimming in the 1940s. Yet by the 1960s, in large part because of the neglect of Atlanta’s sewer system during the city’s explosive growth, the river had become “grossly polluted,” state environmental officials told Congress.[iii]
Despite some significant improvements in the 1970s following the initial passage of the Clean Water Act, by the 1990s, Atlanta’s sewer system had fallen into disrepair.[iv] The city’s failure to regularly invest in maintenance and upgrades and to repair thousands of leaks had a disastrous effect on water quality: hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Chattahoochee every year, carrying more than 4 million tons of phosphorus. The river often had sewage floating on its surface.[v] The West Point Lake, formed by the Chattahoochee downstream from Atlanta, was said by scientists to be “exhibiting the classic signs of death by pollution” and was completely devoid of oxygen much of the year.[vi]
Despite deteriorating water quality, the city of Atlanta delayed paying to upgrade its sewer system, instead opting to shell out millions of dollars in EPA fines for exceeding pollution limits.[vii]
So in 1995, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, acting under the Clean Water Act’s citizen suit provision, sued Atlanta for violating the conditions of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The U.S. District Court found that Atlanta’s discharges – which included metals and as much as 5,000 times the allowable level of fecal coliform bacteria – caused the river to violate Georgia’s Clean Water Act-mandated water quality standards.[viii]
In July 1998, to settle the lawsuit, the mayor of Atlanta signed a federal consent decree committing the city to end water quality violations resulting from combined sewer overflows and to complete upgrades by 2014. (An extension until 2027 was granted in 2012, after the city had completed much of the work.)[ix] The consent decree led to a wide range of improvements.[x] Repairs to leaking water and sewer pipes skyrocketed, from 750 in 2002 to nearly 10,000 in 2009. A deep sewer tunnel able to hold 177 million gallons of rain and sewage was built to reduce combined sewer overflows from 300 times a year to just four.[xi]
As a result of the upgrades, more than 400 million gallons of sewer spills per year were eliminated, and, by 2014, the volume of untreated sewage that flowed into the river and its tributaries had been reduced by 99 percent compared with the 1990s.[xii]
The Chattahoochee still suffers from urban and construction runoff pollution.[xiii] Nevertheless, the river’s improvements have been dramatic, and Georgians are beginning to return to its waters for recreation.[xiv] The city has begun an extensive water monitoring program to track improvements.[xv] Some signs suggest that native species are making a comeback – a U.S. Geological Survey scientist monitoring water quality in the river was surprised recently when he spotted a native mussel having returned to the water south of Atlanta.[xvi] After years of neglect, the Chattahoochee is on the path to recovery.[xvii]
[i] Lynn Willoughby, Flowing Through Time: A History of the Lower Chattahoochee River (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999), 177.
[ii] Other sources of pollution: Lynn Willoughby, Flowing Through Time: A History of the Lower Chattahoochee River, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999), 177; primary culprit of pollution: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Progress in Water Quality: An Evaluation of the National Investment in Municipal Wastewater Treatment, June 2000.
[iii] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Progress in Water Quality: An Evaluation of the National Investment in Municipal Wastewater Treatment, June 2000.
[v] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Report to Congress on the Impacts and Control of CSOs and SSOs, August 2004.
[vi] Thousands of leaks: Atlanta Department of Watershed Management, History, accessed at www.atlantawatershed.org/inside-dwm/history, 7 September 2014; phosphorous, West Point Lake, oxygen levels: Sally Bethea, “Cleaning Up Atlanta's Sewers,” Stormwater (Journal), 1 June 2009.
[vii] Ryan Mahoney, “City Racks Up Sewer Fines Amid $4B Cleanup,” Atlanta Business Chronicle, 23 October 2006.
[viii] Atlanta Department of Watershed Management, History, accessed at www.atlantawatershed.org/inside-dwm/history, 7 September 2014; U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Fund, Inc. v. City of Atlanta, 986 F. Supp. 1406, 17 November 1997.
[ix] Consent decree details: U.S District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Riverkeeper v. City of Atlanta Consent Decree, July 1998; extension granted: Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Enforcement Highlights, accessed at www.chattahoochee.org/enforcement-highlights.php, 11 September 2014.
[xi] Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, “Finally, Sewage Spills Under Control,” RiverCHAT (Newsletter), Winter 2009, available at www.chattahoochee.org/downloads/UCR_NL.Winter09.pdf.
[xii] 400 million gallons: Atlanta Department of Watershed Management, History, accessed at www.atlantawatershed.org/inside-dwm/history, 7 September 2014; decreased by 99 percent: Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, “Successful Action Transforms Atlanta’s ‘Streams of Waste’,” RiverCHAT (Newsletter), Summer 2014, available at www.chattahoochee.org/documents/CRK_Summer_2014web_Final.pdf.
[xiii] Mike Morris, “Soaring E. coli Levels Prompt Health Warnings for the Chattahoochee,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 7 May 2013.
[xiv] Sarah Fay Campbell, “Cleaner Chattahoochee ‘Not The Same River’ It Used To Be,” Newman Times-Herald, 5 July 2014.
[xvi] Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, “Successful Action Transforms Atlanta’s ‘Streams of Waste’,” RiverCHAT (Newsletter), Summer 2014.