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Cleaning up Lake Lanier a pricey project for sewer officials
Utilities exploring unconventional ways of solving problem
The city of Gainesville has over the years spent $25 million on environmental upgrades for the Flat Creek Water Reclamation Facility, pictured from the air on July 5, near Flowery Branch.

Sewer and water utilities are trying to come up with creative ways to dull the pain of Clean Water Act restrictions on Lake Lanier set to take effect in the next couple of years.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division announced this month that it was moving forward with a “total maximum daily load” plan after years of discussion.

The plan would set a hard cap on the amount of phosphorus flowing into Lake Lanier. Phosphorus is a problem because it promotes algae growth, which in extreme cases can poison the water and kill large numbers of fish. However, one local water expert said the lake water quality follows a pattern and that slightly higher concentrations of phosphorus hasn’t caused problems.

Two major sources of phosphorus are point sources — those permitted by the state such as sewer utilities — that dump their treated water into the lake or the streams and rivers that feed it, and nonpoint sources. Nonpoint sources are much harder to pin down. They’re the farms and fields of fertilizer and chicken coops, industrial plants, neighborhoods and even wildlife that the state can’t directly control.

All of those land uses and animals generate waste and leave phosphorus behind, which gets washed into creeks, streams, rivers and eventually Lake Lanier.

The state needs to reduce both point and nonpoint sources to get clean enough water in the lake to comply with federal law.

How it intends to achieve that is laid out in the daily load plan, a hefty document the EPD hopes to release by the end of September. After a 45-day comment period, it will go to the Environmental Protection Act for six to eight months for review and possible revision.

Linda MacGregor, director of water resources for Gainesville, spent decades working in the EPD. She said Lake Lanier’s water tests only slightly higher than federal standards, but that it’s still high enough to be considered a violation.

“For example, at the (Buford Dam) pool in 2015 the in lake measurement was 6.36, which is above the standard of 5,” MacGregor said this week. “We are not aware of any associated noticeable problems in the lake which negatively affected use of the lake, despite this slightly higher ... level.”

But though violations are in many cases slight, federal law still requires state government to enforce provisions of the Clean Water Act that require more regulations.

Cleaning up Lake Lanier has been serious business — and required serious money — for years.

In the past three decades, Gainesville has spent $82 million upgrading its sewer infrastructure at Flat Creek and Linwood treatment plants to meet limits set by the state, according to MacGregor.

Every year, the city spends approximately $250,000 on the chemicals to treat water leaving sewer plants and entering waterways.

Brooke Anderson, general manager of the Etowah Water and Sewer Authority, told the Lake Lanier Stakeholders group earlier this month that a the Coosa-North Georgia Water Planning Council was one of multiple groups exploring a “trading” plan for pollutants flowing into the Savannah River, which cuts east of the Chattahoochee River toward Savannah and the coast.

He said the groups are exploring a “nontraditional targeted strategy that gets into trading loading for nonpoint source to point source.” Loading is the technical term for the amount of phosphorus or any other pollutant being dumped into the environment.

Beginning later this year, the water council representing much of Northeast Georgia will discuss whether sewer utilities can reduce the total amount of pollutants flowing into rivers by paying for improvements in nonpoint sources.

“Trading” would involve a sewer utility paying for the equipment a farmer needs to store animal waste or more efficiently clean a chicken coop. Utilities could pay for better stormwater infrastructure in a rural area or make other broad changes that reduce runoff into rivers and lakes.

In return, a sewer utility could dump a bit more of whatever pollutant it’s monitoring than its permit allows — a “trade” that would allow it to avoid expensive infrastructure upgrades while cleaning up the environment for a net improvement in water quality.

The idea is still being explored by the water planning council, which is set to have stakeholder meetings this fall to discuss how to proceed.

However, local environmental conservation group Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is skeptical about the benefits of a trading program around Lake Lanier.

“The challenge is trying to quantify (the changes),” said Dale Caldwell, the group’s watershed protection specialist. “It’s much easier to quantify a discharge from a pipe or point source.”

Caldwell believes it would be too difficult to measure improvements in wide areas given the complexity of land uses around Lake Lanier, and he noted that the program would have to be monitored by the EPD.

“Someone has to administer a program that keeps track of this trading,” he said. “We’re talking about a state agency that is already choked financially and struggles to keep up with compliance and enforcement with regulated discharges.”

A sanctioned trading program has not been worked into the TMDL for the Chattahoochee watershed, but state regulators told members of the Lake Lanier Stakeholders group that they’re trying to find “flexibility” in the regulations to give municipalities time to prepare for tighter regulations.

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