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Whats in Lake Lanier's waters?
Its OK to jump in, but water watchdogs, agencies keep tabs on pollutants
Hideaway Bay Marina in Flowery Branch.

Lanier testing

Here’s a look at some of the substances tested for on Lake Lanier and why

• Chlorophyll-a: indicates the level of potentially harmful algae growth in the water

• Fecal coliform, E. coli: indicates the possible presence of disease-causing microorganisms

• Turbidity: shows cloudiness of water, with higher levels often correlating to levels of disease-causing microorganisms

• Conductivity: amount of electricity that water will conduct, showing the amount of dissolved minerals in the water

• Phosphorus, nutrients: generally from runoff, these can cause algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle

Lake Lanier is safe — mostly.

Northeast Georgia’s most precious water resource, a 38,000-acre manmade magnet for millions of sun- and water-soaked visitors every year, has had its challenges over its 58-year history, and it has its troubled spots.

But for the most part, people don’t have to fear dipping a toe in the water, eating its fish or drinking its government-treated water, said lake advocates who are more than just a little familiar with what lies below the surface.

Jason Ulseth, who leads the environmental watchdog Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said people generally base their fears of Lanier’s water quality on previous concerns or experiences, such as reports of the rare but devastating flesh-eating bacteria.

Not that those can be entirely dismissed, but “unless we’ve had a heavy rain washing stuff in, recreational numbers are generally pretty good, if the water is nice and clear and it hasn’t rained,” he said.

With Memorial Day the unofficial start of summer, recreation is now starting to hit its stride, with swimmers, boaters and water skiers hitting Lanier’s waters.

But the lake is far more than a playground. It also is the drinking water source for an estimated 1.2 million residents, an authorized use that has drawn the scrutiny of area government officials and state agencies, including the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and other water watchers, including Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and the Lake Lanier Association.

Water quality has improved

The EPD says water quality has improved since 2006, when Lanier was added to the list of waters where quality standards were not met because of chlorophyll-a violations at the Ga. 53/Dawsonville Highway bridge, as well as Browns Bridge and in Flowery Branch.

Chlorophyll-a indicates the level of potentially harmful algae growth in the water. Algae growth can be traced to too many nutrients, mostly coming from farms, septic tanks, lawn fertilizers and wastewater treatment plants.

By the time the 2014 list of impaired waters was prepared, the only site that still showed impairment was Browns Bridge. Flowery Branch is meeting chlorophyll-a criteria.

“The lake currently meets all other water quality standards, including bacteria, dissolved oxygen, phosphorus and nitrogen,” EPD officials said.

Over the past three years, 85 percent of samples collected had no measurable fecal coliform from animal waste. Those bacteria are usually safe but indicate there may be other disease-causing bacteria in the water.

Though some tributaries may have fecal coliform levels that exceed the criteria, dilution in the lake and natural processes, including the effects of sunlight, result in an average fecal coliform level that meets or exceeds water quality standards, the EPD said.

“Lake Lanier is safe for all primary-contact recreational uses, including wading, swimming, boating and water skiing,” the EPD said.

Testing is a team effort

That hasn’t stopped groups from closely monitoring waters pouring into Lanier, which has 692 miles of shoreline hugging several counties, including Hall.

After all, Lanier is part of the much larger Upper Chattahoochee River watershed, which spans from Rabun County in the north to near the crossroads of interstates 85 and 20 in Atlanta. That watershed is part of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the chief groups is Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which has an agreement with EPD to help collect chlorophyll-a data. In addition to the task, the organization, which has a headwaters office in Gainesville, also runs Neighborhood Water Watch, which involves neighborhood groups, schools and residents taking water samples in streams.

Participants specifically test for E. coli, which is a subset of fecal coliform.

“And the reason we use that is ... it’s a (bacteria) indicator and it’s cheap and easy to test for,” said Duncan Hughes, the Riverkeeper’s headwaters outreach director.

Those efforts led to the discovery of a leaking sewer line on Mud Creek. The leak, an estimated 7,200 gallons of raw sewage per day, was reported to Flowery Branch, which then spent $49,000 on repairs.

“Flowery Branch was right on it,” Hughes said. “As soon as they learned of it, they took corrective action.”

Lake Lanier Association sponsors its annual Shore Sweep, a massive lake cleanup effort that hauls in an average of 30 tons of trash each year.

Its Adopt-A-Lake Program teaches volunteer participants how to monitor water quality by taking samples from 30 testing stations on the lake.

Volunteers take samples the first weekend of every month, gaining “basic knowledge of watershed assessment and how to measure various parameters that aid in the quest for a healthy Lake Lanier,” according to the organization’s website.

The corps tests designated swimming areas for fecal coliform once monthly and before each holiday weekend, said Tim Rainey, Lanier’s operations project manager.

“In my years here, even going back as a ranger, we’ve had very few (results) come back high where we had to retest,” he said. “... We got signs (at the ready) to close a beach. We’ve just never had to do that before.”

Otherwise, that’s all the corps does related to water quality.

“We view (Lanier) as state waters and (water quality) is a state responsibility,” Rainey said.

Pollutants come from plenty of sources

Potential pollutants come basically from identifiable “point” sources, such as wastewater treatment plants, and less identifiable or “nonpoint” sources, such as farms, septic tanks and lawn fertilizers.

And there are plenty of both spread throughout the Upper Chattahoochee. Hall County alone has all the makings for a perfect storm: a large and growing population, urban areas, a spidery network of creeks and streams, and large pastures and farmlands.

Flat Creek is a 6-mile waterway that flows from downtown Gainesville to Lanier, past poultry processing plants and other industry, plus a bevy of homes.

Earlier this year, the EPA charged that Pilgrim’s Pride had violated sections of the Clean Water Act and that it “may be subject to enforcement action” until compliance is met. As of May 21, no “formal enforcement actions” had been taken against the company, according to the EPA’s enforcement and compliance website.

And that raises another issue: While there’s strict accountability for government-operated plants and privately operated treatment plants, agribusiness is generally not regulated.

“That’s the sweet thing about us — the reason why I like to get up in the morning and come to work,” said Bryan Barrett, area resource conservationist for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. “We’re a volunteer-type service that started back in the 1930s, during the dust bowl times.”

The service advises farmers what the best practices are, such as spreading the right amount of fertilizer and putting up fencing to keep cattle out of streams. It’s up to farmers to seek the help.

Hughes said he understands “nobody likes to be told what to do ... but imagine driving without any common-sense rules and regulations to protect all of us on the roadway. Well, that’s kind of how it is with water quality.

“There has to be some common-sense regulations because human nature has proved time and again that, left to our own devices, we’re generally going to do what’s in the best interest of us as an individual versus us as a society.

“So, sometimes, prescriptive regulations are needed.”

But Hughes isn’t optimistic that’ll happen.

“Will regulation ever get to the point where (land buffers) are required on agriculture? I tend to think not just because of the power of the agricultural lobby and, frankly, its importance to the economy in Georgia, but particularly in Northeast Georgia with beef cattle and poultry production,” Hughes said.

‘Unbelievably better’ after Clean Water Act

The pressure is particularly heavy on governments to meet water quality criteria, with the state preparing a document that restricts that amount of nutrients water can receive — a key restriction as nutrients correlate to chlorophyll-a.

But restrictions are familiar to governments since the Clean Water Act’s passage in 1972.

“We’ve kept ratcheting down and ratcheting down on the sewage plants and doing a better and better job, to where ... the turbidity level for the wastewater plant is better than the turbidity of the drinking water,” said Kelly Randall, Gainesville’s public utilities director.

Turbidity is a measure of the cloudiness of water, with higher levels often correlating to levels of disease-causing microorganisms.

“You really can’t (remove) any more dirt out of those (public) systems, so now ... the dirt that’s running off the parking lot of Acme warehouse is where the most dirt is coming from,” said Randall, who has worked for Gainesville since 1987.

Ulseth said he believes that “through the implementation of the (federal) Clean Water Act and other water-quality measures over the last 40-something years, we’ve made great strides in water quality improvements and protection, but we still have a ways to go.”

Just last week, federal officials rolled out new clean water regulations focusing largely on the health of streams and other wetlands that help feed into primary drinking sources.

Water conditions before the Clean Water Act often were poor at best. Untreated sewage and industrial waste flowed straight into waterways. In 1969, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so fouled by industrial pollution the river caught on fire.

“Since ’72 until now, the waterways are unbelievably better than they were beforehand,” Randall said.

And while some may still worry about water, Bill Wilson, a public utilities veteran who manages Gainesville’s water treatment plant off Riverside Drive, said he believes Gainesville is “blessed” by its headwaters spot in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint.

“There’s less to deal with because of that,” he said. “We don’t have a great number of people above us that are putting the water they use back into the lake, (compared to) the other end of the lake or the river below Atlanta.”

For his part, Randall goes to the lake, but he wouldn’t tell others to join him, he said.

That’s not so much a reflection of water quality as it is “who knows what somebody can run into out there? I’m talking about any body of water in any state in the country.” Randall said.

“You just don’t know — it’s part of life.”