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Water quality improvements could mean big bucks
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HELEN — There’s environmental green and dollar green, and both got heavy chatter at Thursday’s Lake Lanier Stakeholders meeting.

The potential for stricter permits for utilities had some officials worried about the impact of treatment plant upgrades on taxpayers.

Cornelia Utilities Director Keith Ethridge said such expensive improvements “are going to be paid for (by) people who are struggling in the economy and people who are on fixed incomes.”

And Flowery Branch City Manager Bill Andrew told the group, “We’re not paying attention to the fact that this is a monetary situation.

“We’re going more and more into debt and I’m the city manager — I don’t know the biology of all this. All I know is communities can’t afford to keep up with this effort.”

The group, largely comprising public utility officials, was formed last fall to meet with state

Environmental Protection Division officials on the development of a “total maximum daily load” for Lake Lanier, which was placed on an “impaired waters” list in 2008.

TMDL “is a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a water body can receive and still safely meet water quality standards,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The big concern 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.

Those two initiatives served to kick-start the stakeholders group, an effort led by the Gainesville-based Georgia Mountains Regional Commission and Atlanta Regional Commission.

“These two parallel activities will require a more integrated approach to water quality and quantity management,” according to a joint statement by the groups.

“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, land owners and environmental interests.”

Elizabeth Booth, manager of EPD’s Watershed Planning and Monitoring Program, presented several slides at the meeting, including one showing a breakdown of government users and permitted flows into the lake and another showing nutrient loads.

“The only thing that EPD has control over is that,” Booth said. “The rest of it is all voluntary. Chicken processors and the farms are sending out manure, but they’re doing that voluntarily. They don’t have anyone beating them up over the head and saying you have (restrictions).

“How you manage the farmland and the testing of the phosphorus in the soils is voluntary.”

Basically, pollution comes from “point” sources, or readily identifiable sites, such as utility discharge pipes, and “nonpoint sources” that can be difficult to pinpoint, such as fertilizer running into creeks or failing septic tanks.

A big part of Thursday’s discussion focused on governments and “realities you’re dealing with if (Booth) was going to come in and do a massive change to your permit,” said Daniel E. Johnson, the meeting’s moderator and manager of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District.

Gwinnett, which spent some $700 million on its plant, said it already puts its water “through a rigorous 11-step process that returns it to an almost pristine state before sending it to discharge points in the Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier,” the county’s website states.

“Frankly, we’d like to put more water back in the lake, which would be good on the water supply side,” said Holly Elmendorf, representing Gwinnett.

Don Dye, Gainesville’s assistant public utilities director, said the city also has invested millions in improvement, including $54 million “redoing” the Linwood Water Reclamation Facility.

“We’ve done lots of renovations at the Flat Creek (Water Reclamation Facility) as well to meet that (permit) parameter,” he said. “There comes a point when you get diminishing returns. You spend more money and get less returns.

“That’s what the emphasis of this group is — where can we get the biggest bang for the buck. If we’re going to spend a certain amount of money,let’s get the most nutrients out of the water.”

He did praise state efforts to meet with utilities and others to get their input before setting TMDL limits.

“EPD has reached out but not to this level prior to a TMDL being (put into effect),” Dye said.

The group didn’t settle on a date for its next meeting, but the location likely will be in Cornelia.