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August/September 2004: Georgia Contractor


Commuting on any of Atlanta's major freeways and arterials during the morning and afternoon weekday rush hour has become increasingly challenging over the past few years. According to the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), a regional planning and intergovernmental coordination agency for 10 counties in the Atlanta area, the region has grown by more than 250,000 people in the last four years. Eight counties (Bartow, Coweta, Cherokee, Forsyth, Gwinnett, Henry, Paulding and Walton) are ranked by the U.S. Census Bureau as among the Top 100 fastest growing counties nationwide.

Equally daunting is the region's thirst -- the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District (MNGWPD) estimates that water demand for the District's four million customers will equal supply by 2030.

The District is comprised of various local jurisdictions within the 16-county Atlanta metro region and these counties are situated within five major river basins - Chattahoochee, Coosa, Flint, Ocmulgee and Oconee. The Chattahoochee River Basin, for example, is one of the smallest rivers in the U.S. serving a major metro area - and it currently provides almost 70 percent of the District's water! The Atlanta area can't rely on groundwater sources because crystalline-type bedrock is prevalent. The District also doesn't import water from outside its boundaries.

"Our streams are small headwater streams so supply, stormwater runoff and wastewater treatment are crucial issues here," said Pat Stevens, chief of environmental planning for ARC and MNGWPD. "We're now facing serious water resource challenges because of the region's rapid growth rate."

Add to this mix is the fact that currently, more than a thousand miles of the District's rivers, streams and lakes don't meet state water quality standards because of polluted stormwater runoff.

So with water supply service needs projected to double by 2030, and coupled with the reality that wastewater treatment plants may have to treat 50 percent more wastewater than they do today, Metro Atlanta has reached a water resource management crossroads. If the needs are not properly addressed it will have a serious impact on the region's infrastructure and economy.

Fortunately, the District, with a team of environmental consultants spearheaded by MACTEC, has now completed three water resource plans, elements of which are already being implemented to help meet short- and long-term water requirements.

"We're already working on collecting water quality monitoring data so people can see how much progress has been made," Stevens said. "We're now setting up a seminar on water conservation pricing, we just completed a water rate survey for all 16 counties and are running a series of water conservation public service announcements this summer."

The three plans consist of:

  • A watershed management plan. It focuses on local stormwater management programs, source water protection, watershed improvement, and land use.
  • A wastewater management plan. It addresses wastewater treatment plant issues, integrating reclaimed water, managing septic tanks, and returning reclaimed water to the Chattahoochee River.
  • A water supply and water conservation management plan that provides recommendations for reallocating the water supply for Lakes Lanier and Allatoona, completing new reservoir sources currently being permitted, addresses water system interconnections and water conservation measures.

Some of the key elements of the watershed management plan include:

A local stormwater management program. Model Stormwater Management Ordinances already adopted by the District provide for post-development stormwater management, floodplain management, stream buffer protection, and more. Other areas include improved enforcement of sedimentation and erosion control such as stormwater management for transportation projects, and a comprehensive public awareness and education program.

Source water protection. An important measure is implementing Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) water supply watershed protection standards within all jurisdictions. Recommendations also include developing and distributing educational materials for specific sources of pollution identified in source water assessment plans.

Watershed improvement. In developed watersheds, the plan recommends that steps be taken to improve water quality and aquatic habitat conditions.

Land use. Provides land use and zoning measures that local governments can voluntary adopt to meet watershed management goals, such as greenspace preservation, and improved stormwater site design.

The Atlanta area has more than 9,000 miles of sewers and more than 100 publicly owned treatment plants. The wastewater management plan calls for phasing out many of the older, smaller facilities so there are 48 of these by 2030 (the reduced number does include six new facilities) in the region. Integrating reclaimed water to local streams, lakes and rivers will help sustain Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona, and the Chattahoochee River.

The wastewater management plan also provides three key recommendations to manage septic tanks - establish minimum lot size requirements, mandate that residential septic tanks be sized to accommodate a garbage disposal, and have local governments require septic system owners have their septic tanks pumped every five years.

Atlanta and its environs currently use about 652 MGD of water each day - by 2030, this figure is expected to almost double to 1,200 MGD. There is also increasing pressure to protect water supply watersheds from contaminants and potential terrorist threats.

The water supply and water conservation management plan addresses these concerns. Water conservation programs are paramount and the plan is expected to reduce demand by 11 percent, in addition to another eight percent savings expected to be achieved from complying with existing plumbing codes and new water-saving clothes washers. Specific actions include:

  • Conservation pricing for all District water systems
  • Water system leak reduction and repair
  • Plumbing retrofits on resale of homes
  • Low-flow urinals for new industrial, commercial, and institutional buildings
  • Rain sensor shut-off switches on new irrigation systems (adopted by state legislature in 2004)
  • Sub-unit meters in new multi-family building
  • Residential water audits
  • Commercial water audits
  • Distribution of low-flow retrofit kits to residential customers
  • Education and public awareness programs

Of course, implementing these plans requires funding - it's estimated total program costs will be about $67 billion over 30 years: $22 billion for wastewater collection and treatment systems ($6 billion for treatment facilities, $15 billion for collection systems, $1 billion for combined sewer systems projects); $11 billion to develop reservoirs, treatment facilities and distribution systems; $18 billion for ongoing operation and maintenance; and $16 billion for water infrastructure.

The majority of these projected costs are already mandated under existing regulatory requirements. A key funding element of the watershed management plan being considered is a stormwater utility program - property owners would pay a stormwater fee based on the changes they have made to the 'character' of stormwater (volume, rate, and pollutant content) that runs off their properties. Each customer then pays a fee in proportion to the relative burden that the customer places on the stormwater systems. Typical monthly household fees are expected to not exceed five dollars.

Atlanta is poised for even more rapid growth over the next decade. The implementation of the water resource management plans will provide a blueprint that not only supports this growth, but also helps preserve the environment for future generations.

Return to: 2004 Feature Stories