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Group to keep eye on Lake Lanier quality

Water pollution, quantity standards a key topic

POSTED: January 12, 2014 11:23 p.m.

A group mainly comprising government utilities has been formed to follow state and federal actions concerning Lake Lanier’s water quality and quantity standards — and give feedback as needed.

Lake Lanier Stakeholders, which kicked off in a September meeting in Gwinnett County, will focus largely on the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s development of a “total maximum daily load” and the Army Corps of Engineers’ update of its water control manual.

TMDL “is a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a water body can receive and still safely meet water quality standards,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And those numbers “may impact utilities, local governments and other stakeholders,” according to a written summary of the lake group’s first meeting.

In 2008, Lake Lanier was placed on an “impaired waters” list, pushing to the forefront the need for a TMDL “for the pollutant of concern, which, in this case, is chlorophyll-a,” said Juliet Cohen, general counsel for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an Atlanta-based environmental advocacy group.

Chlorophyll-a indicates the level of potentially harmful algae growth.

“The EPD said it really would like to work with stakeholders to help develop that TMDL, because some people have almost no load, or proportionately almost no load, in the lake and others have very large loads of pollutants,” said Ron Peters, deputy director of Gwinnett County’s water resources department.

“And if a TMDL is written, it will affect anyone who is in the watershed,” he said.

Still, “we didn’t want this to be (just) a Gwinnett County effort,” Peters said.

After some interaction with Gwinnett, the Atlanta Regional Commission, which the county is part of, began working with the Gainesville-based Georgia Mountains Regional Commission on a joint effort.

“What will happen is the state will establish some sort of (TMDL) limit and (utilities) will be required to do whatever it takes to comply,” Peters said. “For some of these smaller systems, that may mean a major, major refurbishment.

“That also includes the agricultural community. Although it’s a lot harder (to pinpoint), you’ve got runoff from pastures that contribute (to water quality).”

A document from ARC and GMRC states: “This process will identify both point and nonpoint source reductions that will be required in future pollutant loadings.”

Point sources, such as utility discharges, tend to be more identifiable than nonpoint sources, such as septic tanks and runoff.

However, “there are methods to address (nonpoint sources), which is essentially trying to create policies that make sure land development and land use is mindful of stormwater runoff,” said Adam Hazell, GMRC planning director.

The corps’ manual update, meanwhile, “will identify potential withdrawals and return flows that will be allowed under existing authorized uses,” according to the regional commissions.

“These two parallel activities will require a more integrated approach to water quality and quantity management.”

In August, the Department of Natural Resources board voted to raise the amount of allowable chlorophyll-a in testing samples to 6 parts per billion from 5 parts per billion at its Flowery Branch testing site and 7 parts per billion from 5 parts per billion at its Browns Bridge Road site.

The move didn’t stir much dissent at the time.

The standards change “is based on some updated modeling results that indicated the original standards that were adopted cannot be met,” said Elizabeth Booth, manager of EPD’s Watershed Planning and Monitoring Program. “They were too tight when they (were) established in 2000. We cannot obtain them.”

Each April through October, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper cruises Lake Lanier checking water quality, as part of a sampling and quality assurance plan approved by the EPD. The state agency releases an impaired water list every two years in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.

In water-monitoring tests last year, the group found that, except for an area off the Ga. 53/Dawsonville Highway bridge in Gainesville over the Chattahoochee River, Lake Lanier met water quality standards in 2013.

The testing station at the bridge showed 10.6 parts per billion of chlorophyll-a, which indicates the level of potentially harmful algae growth, exceeding the standard of 10 parts per billion.

Jason Ulseth, the organization’s technical programs director, has said the northern end of Lake Lanier tends to be murkier because of the joining of the Chestatee and Chattahoochee rivers.

“As the (rivers) are coming in, they’re depositing all the nutrients from that whole watershed and they all get eaten up on that end,” he said. “Generally, we see the clearest water at (Buford) Dam.”

Andy Pilgrim, Cornelia sewer plant manager, said most governments around Lanier are far from exceeding pollutant limits in their discharges.

“The problem isn’t point sources, I can promise you that,” he said.

“Nonpoint is all your farmers that don’t have buffers on their creeks that animals get in and out (of). You’ve got erosion, where all these chicken houses and chicken farmers are spreading manure and it rains and washes off into the creek. That’s where it’s all coming from — it isn’t coming from wastewater plants.”

Nonpoint sources are “definitely the challenge,” said Ken Rearden, director of Hall County public works and utilities. “One of the sources (officials) had not looked at was the dairy farms around the lake (including) Hall County. You have a bunch of cattle in a small area.”

He has asked the EPD to include that as part of a database.

The stakeholders group is planning its next meeting for Feb. 27 at Unicoi State Park in Helen.


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