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City hopes to restore Flat Creek's water quality, appearance
Waterway empties into Lake Lanier, the main source of drinking water for millions
Tyler Sims, environmental specialist with Gainesville Public Utilities, walks through trash along where the forks of Flat Creek merge.

Take a tour along Flat Creek with an interactive map including multiple photos.

Behind the story

Jeff Gill and Shannon Casas of The Times followed Tyler Sims and Brian Wiley of the Gainesville Public Utilities Department as they monitored sites on Flat Creek to check the waterway’s health.

It’s hard to imagine that farther upstream the creek flows through some of Hall County’s most urbanized areas, with industries, businesses and homes crowding either side.

Through the years, Flat Creek has suffered from pollution and contamination brought about by everything from litter to sewage spills, leading to a designation as an “impaired” waterway.

Worsening the situation is that the waterway serves as the catch basin for a 7-square-mile highly populated urban watershed. So, rain can push everything from plastic bottles to fertilizer into the creek.

“From the data we’ve seen, Flat Creek is the most polluted stream flowing into Lake Lanier, which is a source of drinking water for millions of people and a place where millions of people go to recreate every year,” said Jason Ulseth, technical programs director for the environmental watchdog group Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

The creek’s setting and flow into Lanier are “why we concentrate so much of our efforts on Flat Creek,” said Horace Gee, Gainesville’s environmental services administrator.

The city is poised to soon start a new round of Flat Creek restoration efforts officials say should help with flood protection and water quality.

The $1 million project focuses on an area around Hancock and Georgia avenues, between E.E. Butler Parkway and Queen City Parkway and including the old “fire” pond at the century-old Gainesville Mill.

Creek checked weekly, quarterly

City officials say they weekly monitor certain key spots up and down the 6-mile Flat Creek, which flows from one of two forks from downtown Gainesville into a single waterway around Dorsey Street, before continuing to Lake Lanier.

The “right” fork starts off Industrial Boulevard and Moreno Street, running parallel to railroad tracks and close to the E.E. Butler Parkway overpass. The “left” fork starts near American Red Cross offices off Jesse Jewell Parkway but starts to flow above ground at Banks Street near Grove Street.

Farther along, the creek flows under major Gainesville traffic arteries and through busy residential/commercial areas, including Atlanta Highway, Hilton Drive, Dixie Drive, Memorial Park Drive (south of Memorial Park Cemetery), Centennial Drive and then by the Flat Creek Water Reclamation Facility.

The creek also flows under Old Flowery Branch Road, behind Free Chapel off McEver Road, then under McEver for a final, curvy stretch before ending at Lanier.

Tyler Sims, an environmental specialist with Gainesville, checks for such conditions as water clarity, algae, litter, built-up sediment, peculiar odors and scum at each of the sites, he said as he allowed The Times to follow along with him.

“It’s OK to see some algae, but a lot means there a possible nutrient source adding to that,” he said at one stop. “And if we find an issue, we trace it upstream to try to discover where the problem is coming from.

If a fish kill is spotted, the city notifies the state Department of Natural Resources, Sims said.

“If we see a sewer spill, we go to (the source) as quickly as possible to get (the responsible party) to correct it as soon as possible,” he said.

The city also conducts quarterly trips, where employees hitch up waders and walk the creek — some waters reaching chest high — to check for pollution and other issues, such as erosion and shore litter.

Walkers allow for two to three days of dry weather beforehand so they are safely monitoring a clear creek, not runoff, said Brian Wiley, environmental monitoring coordinator.

The quarterly monitoring began in the 1980s, responding to issues related to sewer overflows.

Trips through the creek’s chilly waters are meant as “as a check of how things are,” to get ahead of any potentially major problems, Wiley said.

Creek’s history tied to poultry boom

Another big reason for all the intense monitoring goes back to how things were.

The buildup of the area’s poultry industry traces to the 1950s, before strict environmental regulation such as the federal Clean Water Act.

“All the water, all the byproducts that they had from their plants went into Flat Creek,” Gee said. “That’s why that it’s such an industrial corridor — because (the creek) was the place for them to get rid of all their water.”

Times have changed in the industry, said Mike Giles, president of the Gainesville-based Georgia Poultry Federation.

Companies are “regulated to control bacteria and runoff under industrial stormwater permits,” he said. “Ultimately, that means implementing best management practices, making sure that the areas where there might be the most impact are contained and that measures are in place to reduce bacteria loads.

“That’s been a focus of the industry for many years and really a process of continual improvement. There’s always something we can do to improve over time, and the (permits) are the regulatory oversight and framework for how this happens.”

Generally speaking, Giles said, “there are a lot of land uses in the watershed, and poultry is one of them. And all land uses contribute something to Flat Creek and the watershed in general.”

Restoration work lies ahead

City officials hope its restoration efforts will go a long way toward improving water quality.

Plans call for converting the pond at Gainesville Mill into a regional detention pond, resembling work done on the pond next to the Public Safety Complex off Queen City Parkway.

“We’re going to remove the existing chain-link fence in the area and open it up for the public to be able to access and use as a greenspace with sidewalks and benches,” said Barclay Fouts of Gainesville Public Utilities.

Along with that work, crews will complete a 1,200-foot stream restoration.

“A lot of concrete streambed that’s been in there for years will be removed and we’ll grate out a new center line for the creek that will (allow it to) meander, and we’ll revegetate it,” Fouts said.

In general, “this will look like the first two projects ... that turned out to be nice greenspace areas,” he said, referring to earlier work in the watershed.

“They’ve held up well. They’ve improved water quality and aquatic life and improved downstream flooding.”

Also, the city plans to work with the Army Corps of Engineers, which governs Lake Lanier, on future work that “will be one of the biggest restoration projects we’ve undertaken,” Gee said.

The project will focus on 3,200 feet of Flat Creek from Dorsey Street to Hilton Drive, including under Atlanta Highway.

Work will focus more on water flow and ecosystem restoration, including, as with previous work, “changing the meandering of the stream to prevent undercutting,” Gee said.

“There won’t be as much beautification as we’ve done ... and making it a community park setting or whatever,” he said.

Overall, Gee believes the city is “making tremendous strides, but ... if we had the foresight, 20 years ago we could have done some of these projects relatively (cheaper) compared to now.”

Green groups: ‘Concerted’ effort needed

Environmental groups applaud the city’s actions but say more work needs to be done.

“There is so much impervious surface in the Flat Creek watershed and so many industrial facilities ... don’t have permitted point-source discharges like a wastewater treatment plant would,” said Duncan Hughes, headwaters outreach director with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

Also part of the problem is that the EPD is “woefully underfunded and understaffed,” he said.

“Of more concern, we’ve sampled at seven sites on Flat Creek weekly for the past several years for E. coli and seen some really high numbers,” Hughes said.

E. coli is a species of bacteria found in human intestines. Its presence in water indicates fecal pollution.

Joanna Cloud, executive director of the Lake Lanier Association, said she believes Flat Creek has two major issues: pollutants you can’t see, such as bacteria, and pollutants you can, such as bags of trash on the shoreline.

“We are pleased to see the restoration project get underway, but there is still much more we would like to see done at Flat Creek in terms of the physical trash issue,” she said.

“What we would ultimately like to see, in addition to the restoration, is the installation of a physical litter trap device. There is a commercial device available ... that is designed to be installed in urban stream areas to collect and centralize physical trash to aid in removal.”

She described the device as “essentially a large floating basket that you would either clean out periodically by hand, or lift out with a crane and dump into a dumpster.”

For environmental officials, the perfect solution might be if the landscape around Flat Creek returned to some natural, uninhabited setting.

That’s not going to happen, so responsible stewardship is the big push.

“The steps the city is taking helps with (water quality), but there needs to be a huge concerted effort among residential property owners, the industries, the city, the state and groups like ours that have an interest in the river,” Hughes said.

“It’s a big problem and it’s going to require a big solution.”