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Lake stakeholders plan to decide how to manage water quality
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Lake Lanier Stakeholders
What: Governments and utilities meeting state environmental officials over Lake Lanier water quality
When: 10 a.m. to noon July 30
Where: Gwinnett County Environmental Heritage Center, 2020 Clean Water Drive, Buford
Contact: Georgia Mountains Regional Commission, 770-538-2626, or the Atlanta Regional Commission, 404-463-3100

A watershed moment may be in store for a group working with state environmental officials on a water quality plan for Lake Lanier.

The Lake Lanier Stakeholders, largely made of public utility officials from governments around the reservoir, has been meeting with Environmental Protection Division officials about what will be an eventual “total maximum daily load,” or maximum amount of a pollutant that water can receive and meet quality standards.

Discussion has covered such topics as environmental impacts and the potential for stricter permits for utilities.

A meeting set for July 30 in Gwinnett County may get more pointed.

“When the TMDL is officially completed by the state, local governments and utilities will need to react to any new demands for pollution and discharge management,” said Adam Hazell, planning director for the Gainesville-based Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.

That effort can be guided either through a “watershed management plan” or a more state-directed TMDL Implementation Program, Hazell said.

So, the bulk of the meeting in Gwinnett County “will be clarifying the process and nature of each and asking the (group) to recommend which path should be (taken),” he said.

“Ultimately the best management practices, state laws and discharge requirements are what they are, so it’s merely a matter of figuring out the politically and financially viable scenarios for employing whatever is needed,” he added.

“Normally bottom-up processes are more favorable to folks, but sometimes the winds suggest having the state make the decisions can be politically more appealing.”

The GMRC and Atlanta Regional Commission are leading the stakeholders group in talks with the EPD and governments and utilities.

Juliet Cohen, general counsel for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said “at this point, EPD must prepare a TMDL and implementation plan.”

“This is a requirement for waters that are listed as impaired, which is still the case for certain stations on Lake Lanier, namely, Browns Bridge,” she said. “And now the Lanier Bridge station is listed as ‘assessment pending,’ which is a downgrade for that station.”

Still, the group would prefer to see continuing “transparency and stakeholder input” in the process, Cohen said.

At this point, EPD Assistant Branch Chief Gail Cowie said, the process still is focused on “the direction that the stakeholders group will want to go.”

“We don’t have any particular expectations,” she said. “We would like to support and assist the stakeholders in taking a look at the long-term planning for the water quality of the lake.”

The EPD, nonetheless, has the responsibility — including under the federal Clean Water Act — to do that work, “and we’ll be doing that in conjunction with the stakeholders, so it’s a question of how they want to undertake that role.”

The big concern in TMDL is phosphorus, which, if it enters the lake in excessive amounts, can cause algae growth and lead to environmental problems such as fish kills, lowered water clarity and the potential for toxic algae blooms, the EPD has stated.

In addition to looming permit restrictions, governments surrounding the lake that depend on the reservoir as a drinking water source also face the Army Corps of Engineers’ first update in some 50 years of a water control manual.

“These two parallel activities will require a more integrated approach to water quality and quantity management,” according to a joint statement from ARC and GMRC.

“The pending outcomes of the TMDL and the water control manuals will potentially impact a variety of the lake stakeholders including local governments, water utilities, landowners and environmental interests.”

Joanna Cloud, executive director for Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association, said she’s hopeful the Lake Lanier Stakeholders initiative “will not only come up with better standards but will also invest the time and energy into recommended actions that stakeholders can take to meet those standards.”

The lake — and other large water bodies — get their pollution from “point,” or more readily identifiable, sources, such as sewer treatment plants, and “nonpoint” sources such as stormwater or agricultural runoff.

While the EPD regulates governments on point sources, nonpoint control is “focused on implementing best management practices in the right way and having good education and outreach to a more diverse population,” said Mike Giles, president of the Gainesville-based Georgia Poultry Federation.

Still, nutrient management plans are required for poultry growers to claim a stormwater exemption under the Clean Water Act.

“Farmers are very aware of their environment and the land they’re taking care of,” Giles said. “They’re passing it between generations.”

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