After years of discussion about discharges into Lake Lanier, Clean Water Act enforcement is finally washing down on Georgia sewer systems, industry and farmers.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division revealed on Friday that it’s making plans to implement a “total maximum daily load” — or TMDL — on Lake Lanier, which is the maximum amount of pollutants that can be dumped into the lake each day while still meeting federal water quality standards.
Friday’s announcement was made by Gail Cowie, EPD’s assistant branch chief for watershed protection, and Elizabeth Booth, EPD’s program manager of watershed planning and monitoring, to the Lake Lanier Stakeholders — a group of regional representatives, sewer managers from lake-area communities and environmental conservationists.
The stakeholders group was organized in 2014 by the Georgia Mountain Regional Commission and the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Lake Lanier has been listed for water quality issues caused by phosphorous since 2006, Cowie said, and a TMDL has been in the works since 2007.
“The lake continues to show water quality problems,” Cowie said. “We also have pending requests for new and expanding discharges, and we cannot respond or act on those requests without moving forward on a TMDL.”
Almost all of the five monitoring sites used by the state and the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which together collect the data that inform state decision-making, have reached unacceptable levels of pollutants at some point in the past five years.
That’s especially true for the northern end of the lake, where it’s fed by creeks and rivers that sit near large numbers of small communities and agricultural uses.
“One of the things that we found was that some of the smaller facilities in the upper watershed have a load that’s as big as some of our largest dischargers,” Booth said.
Phosphorus is a particular concern on the lake because of sewer systems and agricultural land around Lake Lanier. If too much of it washes into the lake, it can cause algae blooms that kill fish, dirty the water and in some cases can be toxic.
But higher concentrations of pollutants are making their way south. The state’s monitoring site at the Buford Dam — the southern terminus of Lake Lanier, is expected to fall out of compliance in 2018. Monitoring sites at Jerry D. Jackson Bridge and Browns Bridge might follow suit depending on what happens in 2017.
The program will mean more expenses for utilities, ratepayers, taxpayers and communities as they work to not only reduce their current discharges but fit population growth into current restrictions.
EPD is aiming to reduce the total annual discharge of phosphorus into the lake by more than 8 percent, to 37,800 pounds each year from 41,244.
A draft plan is in the works, and the hope is to release it by Sept. 30, Booth said. There will be a public comment period on the plan for 45 days before the end of the summer, after which it will be sent to the Environmental Protection Agency for approval.
The document will lay out water quality requirements and benchmarks and is required by the Clean Water Act, according to Cowie. The plan will go into effect in the next two years and will require several months of review by the EPA.
Lula City Manager Dennis Bergin said he was worried that being hasty with the plan could hurt communities in the watershed.
“The success is going to be dependent on everybody’s participation — this goes back to the permit,” Bergin said. “The challenge that we all have for those that are already doing discharge and those that already have phosphorus loading is the success of the other communities coming up to speed with them.
“I can imagine some of these folks are swallowing pretty hard. All of us could be impacted by not having a good implementation schedule.”
Booth said the state will work with each community to set a schedule for water quality improvements.
There are a few ways the new plan will try to improve Lake Lanier water quality as a whole.
Any new sewer systems that discharge into the lake will be required to have the best technology, and usually the most expensive, to reduce phosphorus levels.
These systems are “point sources” — organizations permitted to discharge water into the watershed at specific points.
A more difficult problem is “non-point sources” or the pollutants that build up and are washed into Lake Lanier by rain that don’t come from any one place: wildlife, livestock, urban runoff, farms, leaking septic systems and other sources.
The combined burden from both of these sources of pollutants is pushing Lake Lanier beyond what the EPA and federal law deem safe, as the lake is a major source of drinking water, a residential area and a huge draw for recreation.
To control the total load of pollutants into the lake, communities have set monthly and annual amounts they’re allowed to discharge.
Those limits will ramp down over time, but trading among permit holders will be allowed — if a community is well below its limits, it could trade capacity to another community, according to the presentation.
“We’re going to first look at permits in the upper watershed … if you start growing, the pie’s been set,” Booth said. “Things are going to have to start getting a little tighter.”