Water Quality in South River – Root of the Problem

By Guest Columnist Jacqueline Echols, Ph.D., board president, South River Watershed Alliance for Saporta Report

As we celebrate Earth Day, we are all likely reminded of a special place where nature comes to life in all of its grandeur that we celebrate on this day, this month, and all year long. That special place for me is the South River. Rather than being known for Panola Shoals or Albert Shoals, two massive and magnificent rock outcroppings, or one of its other unique natural features, the South River is best known for its long struggle with pollution.

Jacqueline Echols, edit 2

Jacqueline Echols

Since passage of the U. S. Clean Water Act in 1972, pollution that degrades water quality in our rivers and streams just doesn’t happen, it is allowed to happen. By this I mean the river’s long struggle with pollution has been accompanied by an equally expansive history of lax enforcement of water protection laws by state and federal regulators that span almost five decades. The diversity of people and income levels of communities impacted by the South River has played heavily into why these environmental wrongs have persisted for so long – environmental disparities exist. Still, water quality is the litmus test for a safe and healthy environment irrespective of the similarity or diversity of affected communities.

Throughout Georgia, South River Watershed Alliance and river-focused environmental organizations labor to develop and implement strategies to improve water quality in rivers and streams. Unfortunately, the return on this investment of time and energy is not nearly what it should be. Why has so much effort to improve water quality met with so little success and what can be done to help reverse this trend?

A Glimpse into the Root of the Problem

For the root cause of degraded water quality in the South River and the creeks that flow into the river, we only need to look to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s website for an example of why progress to improve water quality has been so slow. Here the agency’s Watershed Protection Branch clarifies in its opening statement how and for whom the organization acts:

  • “The Watershed Protection Branch manages water resources in Georgia through permits to local governments and industry to discharge treated wastewater and to local governments, industry, farmers and subdivisions for surface water and groundwater withdrawals.”

Conspicuously absent from the Watershed Protection Branch’s statement on the care of the most vital and threatened natural resource in the state is the mention of people or recreation or fishes and aquatic life, wildlife, or water quality needed to support these habitats. It excludes any reference to the protection of Georgia’s rich surface water environments. This statement provides the basis for EPD’s regulatory policies and actions.

South River, rockdale

The South River passes wooded shorelines, such as these in Rockdale County, and the granite outcroppings of Panola and Albert shoals. The river gives little evidence of its urban setting. Photo courtesy of South River Watershed Alliance

Tolerance for Pollution

Georgia is a “primacy” state, which means the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has delegated responsibility for implementing the U.S. Clean Water Act to the state. The use(s) of a water body is the most basic expression of its role in the aquatic and human environments and all have a designated use. The designated use of the South River is “fishing” as is the case for a large number of the state’s rivers. Georgia EPD is responsible, through the issuance and enforcement of permits and regulations, for ensuring that rivers and streams achieve their assigned use. Given the river’s historic struggle with pollution, fishing likely sounds encouraging. After all, fishing signifies human consumption and has direct implications for public health.

Most people are surprised to learn that fishing is the lowest use classification in the state and as such provides the least amount of protection for water quality by allowing the highest amount of permitted pollution.

The South River and many others do not meet their assigned designated use. This means the amount of pollution allowed by Georgia EPD through its permitting and enforcement processes makes it virtually impossible for the river to attain its current use, not to mention the water quality needed to achieve the next highest use of recreation.

Two examples speak to this unhealthy tolerance for pollution.

The use of measurable objectives is a standard management practice recognized all over the world because of the decisive role they play in evaluating performance, reducing uncertainty, and improving administration over time. We are all familiar with the mantra – that which gets measured, gets done. In 2010, the federal consent decree negotiated between EPA, Georgia EPD, and DeKalb County did not require the county to reduce the number of sanitary sewage spills over the entire duration of the 10-year legal action.

South River, locator map

The South River begins near Atlanta’s airport and flows through DeKalb and Rockdale counties, then forms the border between Newton and Henry counties before it enters Lake Jackson. Credit: southriverga.org

This omission ignores the fact that hundreds of unregulated sewage spills, each a violation of the Clean Water Act, were the main reason the legal action was taken in the first place. This objective measure of progress was so fundamental to reducing pollution and improving water quality in the river, South River Watershed Alliance opposed entry of the consent decree in 2011. Moreover, fixed penalties that increase over time and were intended to encourage the county to reduce spills, in the absence of the requirement to do so, have not been enforced. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that sanitary sewage spills in DeKalb County have not been reduced.

In 2005, a U. S. Army Corps of Engineers biologist surveyed Entrenchment Creek, just downstream from Atlanta’s Custer Avenue Combined Sewer Overflow Facility, and found “zero” fish. According to the biologist’s report, other related characteristics that were assessed indicated that there should be fish in Entrenchment Creek, leading to the conclusion that the problem was likely poor water quality. In 2005, the first post-consent decree clean water permit (official name National Pollutants Discharge Elimination System) was issued for the Custer Avenue CSO facility after Atlanta upgraded its CSO system as required by the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper/City of Atlanta federal consent decree.

Over the next decade, water quality in the creek showed improvement. In 2015, Georgia EPD approved a less stringent permit for the facility over anti-backsliding violation concerns – successive permits must be at least as stringent as the previous permit – raised by South River Watershed Alliance and other groups. Combined sewer discharges must not degrade water quality in the receiving stream and the NPDES permit for the facility must contain water quality criteria that protects water quality integrity.

South River, rivers alive 2

Volunteers loaded the red canoe with debris gathered from the South River during a Rivers Alive clean-up event. Items included tires, a plastic chair and other debris. Photo courtesy of South River Watershed Alliance

Future of the South River

Improving water quality in the state’s waterways is the primary responsibility of Georgia EPD for one very important reason: This is the agency that has the statutory authority to issue pollution control permits and mandate compliance with those permits needed to improve water quality.

The principal factor considered by Georgia EPD when a request is made to upgrade a river’s designated use from fishing to recreation is the amount of actual recreational use – canoeing, kayaking, swimming, fishing, etc. – the waterway receives. The agency also imposes the onerous requirement that the waterway should already meet water quality standards for its current use, in the case of the South River, fishing. Absent stronger pollution permits and more vigilant regulatory enforcement, it is unclear how the South River, or any waterway, can surmount this water quality hurdle.

If authorizing pollution through permits, permitting pollution through lack of enforcement, and water withdrawal remain the only focal points of the Georgia’s Watershed Protection Branch, water quality in our river and streams will forever struggle to improve and the protections provided under the Clean Water Act will remain beyond our reach.

Paddlers beach their vessels on the shores of the South River during an event with the Georgia River Network. Photo courtesy of South River Watershed Alliance via Georgia River Network

As part of the federal Triennial Review required under the Clean Water Act, every three years states must evaluate and, if necessary, revise their stream water quality standards. This process provides an opportunity for EPA to assess how effectively Georgia EPD is doing its job protecting water quality in our rivers and streams relative to how Georgians are using them.

Water quality that supports recreational use must become a priority. Throughout the state, water trails, the equivalent of hiking trails on water, are on the rise. More and more Georgians are using their rivers and other waterways for recreation. The actions of Georgia EPD to improve water quality must reflect this increased public use.

The place to begin is for Georgia EPD to give people, fishes and aquatic life, wildlife, and the environment equal weight with municipalities, businesses, and agriculture and to demonstrate this parity in its regulatory actions. After all, in the end, what does the requirement to protect rivers and streams really matter if permit and enforcement actions that are supposed to curb pollution have little impact and in some cases even worsen water quality.

Jacqueline Echols, Ph.D. has been at the forefront of environmental change in Atlanta, including her work since 2000 and service since 2010 as board president with the South River Watershed Alliance. Echols’ more than two decades of work to improve water quality in Atlanta’s waterways and protect the city’s tree canopy earned her the 2017 Environmental Hero Award