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Gainesville’s ‘urban stream’ has seen challenges, progress
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Environmental monitoring coordinator Tyler Sims prepares to take a water sample Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020, at Flat Creek. Water quality is monitored regularly at Flat Creek and the quality has improved in recent years, but the creek still faces some challenges as it runs through an industrial area. - photo by Scott Rogers

Flat Creek, which flows for six miles from midtown Gainesville to Lake Lanier, runs through both industrial areas and less populated areas. The “urban stream” has faced pollution challenges over the years, but now those who monitor the waterway say water quality is improving.

“Flat Creek is a hard-working urban stream. It’s a natural feature, but it provides a lot of services for the community, in terms of assimilating waste and providing flow into Lake Lanier,” Gainesville Water Resources Director Linda MacGregor said. “Historically, it has been quite polluted, but it’s cleaner today than it’s been in decades, and we see that fish are coming back into the creek.”

The creek suffered a 2 million gallon sewage spill in October 2020 after heavy rains led to a pump failure at Flat Creek Water Reclamation Facility. But the creek has also seen some steps forward in the past few years. 

A stream restoration finished in 2018 added 13 rock structures to keep the water flowing and introduce oxygen, along with 2,000 tons of riprap along the sides to help with erosion. A litter trap installed in 2015 off Old Flowery Branch Road catches trash before it can make its way to Lake Lanier. 

Gainesville Water Resources monitors water quality in Flat Creek regularly — six sites along the creek are sampled monthly, while 25 spots are visually inspected weekly, according to Environmental Monitoring Coordinator Tyler Sims. Of the 25 spots inspected visually, two are tested for field parameters such as temperature, dissolved oxygen levels and pH levels weekly, Sims said.

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Impact of rain and runoff

Even with the frequent testing, rainfall can skew water quality data. As rain falls, especially on impervious surfaces like roads or parking lots, it picks up pollutants and flows into waterways like Flat Creek, which then run into Lake Lanier. 

An upstream test of the Flat Creek Water Reclamation Facility on Dec. 1, 2015, showed 100 fecal coliform units per 100 milliliters, while a test at the same location Dec. 1, 2016, showed 70,000 fecal coliform units per 100 milliliters. The benchmark for a stream like Flat Creek is 500 units per 100 milliliters. But there hadn’t been a spill in 2016 — it was raining at the time. Those spikes can be attributed to “nonpoint source pollution,” according to Brian Wiley, environmental services manager for Gainesville Water Resources.

“It is one of the biggest issues found throughout the state of Georgia as pollutants are washed off surfaces and into storm drains and streams,” Wiley said.

On Dec. 4, 2017, fecal coliform numbers were back down, to only 76 units per 100 milliliters. 

The creek usually recovers quickly from heavy rainfall. While a sample on Dec. 3, 2018, found 4,000 fecal coliform per 100 milliliters, the area had just seen more than two inches of rain, according to data provided by Wiley. Just three days later, on Dec. 6, 2018, a resample found 230 fecal coliform units per 100 milliliters.

The same problem reappeared in a Dec. 2 sample. After the creek had seen 2.5 inches of rainfall a few days earlier, fecal coliform levels were above 60,000 units per 100 milliliters. Then, a Dec. 9 resample found levels at 126.

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Environmental monitoring coordinator Tyler Sims takes a water sample Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020, at Flat Creek. Water quality is monitored regularly at Flat Creek and the quality has improved in recent years, but the creek still faces some challenges as it runs through an industrial area. - photo by Scott Rogers

Industry impacts and updates

Several industrial developments, including some of Gainesville’s poultry plants, sit along Flat Creek. While the industries have been a source of pollution for the creek, some have made improvements and are working with environmental groups to lessen their environmental impact.

Dale Caldwell, headwaters director for environmental group Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said the group hosts classes for industry representatives to teach them about best practices. While the group does not act as a full-time environmental consultant for industries, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper does contact companies that have been found to violate stormwater regulations and can refer them to resources for help, he said.

“Anytime you have an area with that much density as far as industrial use, the threats are going to be present,” Caldwell said. “Even though our numbers have improved, we do still see high numbers in that area, so I don’t want to paint a picture that it’s not impacted by heavy industrial use, because it still is.”

But Caldwell said, “we are very pleased with the leadership at Pilgrim’s (Pride) in Gainesville and hope that other operators in the industry will follow their lead.”

The poultry plant on Industrial Boulevard is along Flat Creek and in 2015 was found to be in violation of the Clean Water Act after an inspection from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

“Maggots were observed on concrete, in pipes and in liquid flowing in a pipe that crosses the parking area,” the EPA report stated.

Since then, Pilgrim’s has made a few changes at its facility, according to company spokeswoman Nikki Richardson.

“We installed a complete capture system that prevents any waste from animal handling areas from reaching Flat Creek. The system captures the first 1.2 inches of rain, totaling 60,000 gallons, and processes this captured rain water through our wastewater system in a controlled flow,” she said in an email. “This system, as well as a new capture pump, is maintained weekly by wastewater personnel.”

Richardson said the company has also installed a pre-treatment wastewater upgrade that will prevent the system from getting overwhelmed by excess flow.

Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said a main concern for Flat Creek is bacteria, and poultry companies have been investing in wastewater systems to contain their own waste.

“Bacteria is everywhere in the environment. It doesn’t take away our responsibility, on poultry facility sites, to do everything possible to mitigate it, but bacteria like that is everywhere in the environment,” Giles said. “The poultry industry believes that we have a responsibility and continue to try to improve every day to make sure that environmental practices on site are protective of the environment.”

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