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Lake Lanier group says water quality a concern for everyone
Stakeholders ponder plans to reduce runoff pollution into lake
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Rainwater drains into Lake Lanier in May 2017. - photo by Nick Bowman

Homeowners, property developers and farmers need to be part of the solution to Lake Lanier’s water quality problems, says a group of water utility managers and researchers.

As the population grows around Lake Lanier and the creeks and rivers that feed it, these bodies of water are absorbing more runoff and treated wastewater — enough that regulators are starting the process of tightening restrictions for municipalities and water utilities in September.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division regulates drinking water and wastewater utilities and requires they treat water that flows from their facilities back into the environment. At the end of September, EPD is rolling out for public comment a plan for new restrictions on wastewater permit holders.

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Leaves and sediment pile in a neighborhood creek in Dawson County. Water quality researchers are worried that erosion and runoff from development is causing water quality problems in the Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier. - photo by Nick Bowman

But while utilities can pay for new technology or make other improvements to clean up their discharges — costs that have to be paid by ratepayers and taxpayers — there’s no off switch for the growth and daily lives of the people in Northeast Georgia.

That growth is causing more runoff into state waterways with more roads, parking lots and gutters, more subdivisions, lawns and vehicles.

The issue is the amount of nutrient flowing into the upper portion of the Chattahoochee River watershed, a corridor of streams, rivers and lakes stretching from North Carolina through Georgia and through the Florida Panhandle. The upper watershed includes Lake Lanier, the Chattahoochee River and its feeder streams in the north part of Georgia.

As communities expand around the lake, the watershed and particularly Lake Lanier are seeing higher concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen — two nutrients that promote growth of algae that in large enough quantities can foul water supplies for both humans and wildlife.

From the state’s standpoint, there are two sources of these nutrients: point sources and nonpoint sources.

Point sources are the relatively easy forces to control: sewer utilities and industrial sites with permitted runoff. The people who control this “loading” into Lake Lanier, the amount of nutrient flowing into the lake, sit behind desks and are easy to find.

At a meeting of Lake Lanier Stakeholders on Monday, sewer managers and experts studying water quality issues worried that, with EPD planning to set new restrictions on sewer utilities in the watershed, there’s only so much municipalities can do to clean up their discharges.

“There will come a point where you reach the limit on the technology and the cost-benefit for incremental, fractional reduction from point sources,” said Duncan Hughes, executive director of the Soque River Watershed Association stakeholders group. “That money may be better spent (elsewhere).”

The Soque River in Habersham County is one of the tributaries of the Chattahoochee.

Hughes’ idea, as with others at the meeting, was to find a way to make funding available to clean up nonpoint sources. These are the tricky part of preserving water quality, but they’re a major cause of water quality problems in the watershed.

They include neighborhood streets and parking lots that build up dust and sediment that gets washed away by rain; lawns that get fertilized, then rain washes that fertilizer down the curb, into the sewer and eventually back into creeks and the lake; and hayfields spread with chicken litter.

Nonpoint loading into the lake is driven by rainfall. Nutrients and sediment build up on road surfaces, lawns and fields, and get washed into waterways.

And as a community grows, instead of flowing into ditches or other grass and soil surfaces, these sources more often flow down concrete gutters and into a storm drain, which dumps that nutrient and sediment into waterways without filtering it.

“It’s tough to totally say this is all due to agriculture or this is all due to urban influence, but we do know that what’s happening on the farms and in the cities is clearly contributing nutrient loadings ... that are coming down the Soque and into the Chattahoochee and down to Lake Lanier.

Rather, it’s a combination of all of these land uses. The question for the stakeholders group was how to convince developers, farmers and the public to change the way they do business.

“With future growth, we certainly need to think about how do you develop smartly? How are we going to expand, how are we going to develop urban areas, smartly so that we don’t have these problems in the future?” said Liz Booth, watershed planning and monitoring program manager for EPD.

Some in the water world are proposing new ways to handle permitting, including a “trading” system for utilities.

Brooke Anderson, manager of the Etowah Water and Sewer Authority, is pushing a plan that would allow wastewater utilities to pay for improvements on private land that have a positive effect on water quality — a fence for the farmer or sod for the subdivision — to lighten restrictions on their permit.

Anderson’s hope is that a utility could spend a smaller amount of money cleaning up a nonpoint source than spending a much larger sum on a new piece of technology for marginal benefits at a plant.

In some cities, often-ridiculed “rain taxes” are being considered to pay for stormwater infrastructure improvements, which unlike water and sewer lines have no taxing mechanism built into fees to pay for infrastructure. Cornelia in Habersham County has adopted such a tax; the idea has been floated, but not approved, in Hall County and Gainesville.

Others in the wastewater world think a public information campaign and working directly with nonpoint sources of nutrient will yield benefits in water quality.

Hughes, who with his association has spent years restoring streams and habitat in Habersham County, said there are some changes that could be made to building codes, including replacing curb-and-gutter designs with swales — wide ditches — to absorb runoff and changing tree-planting requirements to place them between parking lots and runoff.

Hughes has also worked with farmers in the area to make changes to their land that clean up streams.

Steven Patrick is the Habersham County coordinator for the University of Georgia Extension. He said Hughes has worked well with farmers to restore habitat in the county for the past 15 years.

But as water quality problems come into focus through the rest of the watershed, Patrick said he was worried farmers and their cattle, fertilizer, chicken houses and crops will be easily, and unfairly, targeted for restrictions.

“We’ve done a lot to improve water quality in the Soque, and we’d love to get that same mentality and mission to spread across the rest of the basin,” Patrick said, referring to his work with Hughes and farmers. “A lot of times people don’t give the farmer the courtesy to want to help them figure out what they can do very easily to improve their operation and improve water quality.”

Hughes and Patrick have worked on changes that are as simple as fencing off cattle from a stream, leaving wooded buffers around streams or applying the right amount of fertilizer to a field.

“If you over-apply fertilizer, you’re wasting money on fertilizer and you’re wasting money on fuel to put it out there on the ground, and with the tighter and tighter margins that agriculture experiences every year, they can’t afford to do that,” Patrick said.

The same rules apply to homeowners, but they’re not being driven bankrupt by mistakes. Patrick said many homeowners buy fertilizer, which have large amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen, at the wrong time of year, which causes it to not get absorbed by lawns and instead wash into storm drains.

It’s not just farmers. Hughes talked about the issues in his own backyard in Habersham.

“Some of the small watersheds off of downtown Clarkesville are 75 or 80 percent (paved), and there’s a huge slug of stormwater running down there every time it rains,” he said. “It’s degrading those channels. It’s causing them to cut down, to widen out, trees to fall in, sediment to be lost and it’s also delivering pollutants.”

As EPD looks to new restrictions on discharges, the Lake Lanier Stakeholders hopes to work to pull in more industry voices to help figure out the watershed’s nutrient problem.

“We come here and we share good information, but I don’t know if we’re really functioning as a stakeholder group as it should be,” said Mike Giles, director of the Georgia Poultry Federation. “For example, I’ve known Duncan for years and I respect and trust his work. We ought to be directly talking to each other. I just pledge to you that we’ll do whatever we can do to communicate and help engage our members.”

With future growth, we certainly need to think about how do you develop smartly? How are we going to expand, how are we going to develop urban areas, smartly so that we don’t have these problems in the future?
Liz Booth, watershed planning and monitoring program manager for state EPD
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