The health of Hall County’s Flat Creek, one of several important streams flowing into Lake Lanier, has recently received considerable media attention. Some of that focus has centered on poultry facilities within this watershed and their impact on water quality.
Whether on the farm or at its processing plants, the poultry industry takes its responsibility as environmental stewards very seriously. Not only is this required by law, but it is the right thing to do. Lake Lanier is a vital source of drinking water and recreation for those of us who live and play in Hall County and metro Atlanta. It should be protected.
Poultry companies expend significant financial resources installing expensive systems to do things such as capture and treat stormwater. Other measures are taken to reduce fecal coliform levels in runoff by preventing exposure through covering of areas where chickens are received at the facility as well as regular cleaning of outside surfaces exposed to rainwater.
The Flat Creek watershed covers 12,804 acres, and poultry facilities operate on less than 10 of those acres. Furthermore, studies sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and academic institutions show high concentrations of fecal coliform in runoff from rain across all acres regardless of what is done on the land. According to one EPA study, fecal coliform levels in residential runoff was 35 times greater than the benchmark that poultry facilities are required to meet in Georgia’s industrial stormwater permit.
Recent media reports in metro Atlanta about heavy rains swelling the Chattahoochee River bear this fact out. The river is experiencing E. coli concentrations much higher than Georgia’s stream standards due to this excessive runoff.
In these reports, a citizen group monitoring the Chattahoochee River points to sediment and runoff from local streets as a possible source of the bacteria. That is the nature of stormwater. Fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria are everywhere in our environment.
Flat Creek seems to get most of the attention, but 16 creeks flowing into Lanier are listed by state officials as impaired for fecal coliform. These streams enter the lake from all points on the compass, and the probable sources are many —wildlife, residential, commercial, septic tanks and streets. In many cases, the finger points back to humans.
Further complicating this issue is the fecal coliform standard itself. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division and EPA acknowledge that fecal coliform is an unreliable indicator of risk to human health. Fecal coliform can originate from humans or animals, but it can also be found in the soil or come from non-fecal sources such as plant materials. In fact, most fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria are harmless to humans.
While much work still needs to be done in Flat Creek, there is good news to report. Contrary to public perception, fecal coliform levels in Flat Creek are extremely low where it enters Lake Lanier, according to sampling data collected regularly by the city of Gainesville.
Over the past five years, the city’s testing shows that fecal coliform levels in Flat Creek are greatly reduced as the creek flows toward Lake Lanier. In fact, samples taken upstream of the poultry processing facilities on Flat Creek were higher for fecal coliform than downstream of the plants, 77 percent of the time.
In Lake Lanier itself, Georgia’s sampling demonstrates fecal coliform levels are even lower. From a bacterial standpoint, Lake Lanier is a clean source of drinking water, while public utilities take further measures to treat the water that we drink to extremely high standards before it is delivered to our homes.
Nevertheless, we should all continue to focus our attention and efforts on improving water quality in Flat Creek. For its part, the poultry industry is always working to improve its environmental protection practices over time, and we certainly have a responsibility to do so. On the other hand, there are very few, if any, other private businesses in the 12,804-acre Flat Creek watershed that are taking steps to reduce fecal coliform in stormwater runoff.
We encourage all stakeholders to join the local poultry industry in exploring additional measures and technologies to reduce the bacteria in runoff originating from sources throughout the watershed — our homes, businesses, parks and streets.
We all have a responsibility and role to play in protecting Lake Lanier and our precious water resources for generations to come.
Mike Giles is president of the Gainesville-based Georgia Poultry Federation.