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Oct. 19, 2018
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Gwinnett research on septic tank impact on Lanier

By Jane Harrison
 
A $2.4 million three year research project on the impact of septic systems on Lake Lanier will focus on a small sector of the watershed that provides drinking water for millions in North Georgia and metro Atlanta. The collaboration between the Gwinnett County Water Resources Department and Georgia Tech Research Corporation will sample and monitor water and groundwater in and just outside of Gwinnett County, which contains about four percent of Lake and has 640 parcels with septic systems.
 
In comparison, Hall County contains about 60 percent of the lake and tens of thousands of properties on septic systems. Hall County environmental health and public works officials report no plans for a similar study, but indicated the county has been studying pollution levels for years through a partnership with the city of Gainesville, Gwinnett and Forsyth counties and college researchers. About five percent of the lake is in Dawson County, 30 percent in Forsyth and 1 percent in Lumpkin.
 
“The water quality, groundwater and sediment monitoring and/or sampling will be completed in the portions of the lake that are in Gwinnett County, as well as an area immediately outside of Gwinnett, between the county and Lake Lanier Islands and toward the dam,” said Karen Shields, Gwinnett Water Resources Department spokesperson.
 
Gwinnett’s approval of the study last month came after a state-issued report that portions of the lake fail to meet water pollution standards under the Federal Clean Water Act. A Georgia Environmental Protection Division evaluation to the federal agency in September cited repeated violations within five years of chlorophyll A limits on a lake segment on Browns Bridge Road between Hall and Forsyth counties. Additionally, a Lanier Bridge segment on Ga. 53 was placed on an assessment pending list due to one chlorophyll A violation in a five year span. Chlorophyll A, a pigment in algae, indicates the presents of harmful nutrients that cause excess algae growth, according to the Georgia EPD.
 
The state EPD has proposed reducing nutrient levels, or the Total Maximum Daily Load, that seeps into Lake Lanier. Failed septic systems, along with stormwater run-off from farms, lawns and pavement, contribute to nutrient loading in lake water. The Gwinnett research project on the impact of septic systems aims to “assess which strategies may help reduce this nutrient loading, and provide a model the county and EPD can use to predict lake response to remedial actions,” Shields said.
 
“We are certainly interested in seeing the results of additional research,” said Dale Caldwell, Headwaters Watershed Protection Specialist for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “While Gwinnett’s study may not focus on the entire lake, it will likely encompass an area with similar land use and associated problems that occur all over the lake. Research is always welcomed when trying to address threats to a waterbody that is as valuable as Lake Lanier is to surrounding communities.”
 
Caldwell reported by email that CRK has been has been “monitoring Lake Lanier by collecting and analyzing samples for chlorophyll A at 10 different sites around the lake since 2010.” He added that the state samples at the same 10 sites. “Results indicate that we are not meeting state standards at a few of these sites and failing septic systems are a possible source of several for such nutrient pollution,” he said.
 
“Failing septic systems can result in increased levels of nutrients and harmful bacteria in nearby public waterways (creeks, rivers, and lakes),” Caldwell noted. He added that when CRK receives reports of failing systems, “we usually conduct sampling just upstream and downstream of suspected areas and test for E. coli.” The results show a significant localized impact and E. coli levels that exceed EPA levels for safe recreation. But this localized data cannot accurately relate the overall impact on a lake the size of Lanier, he added.
 
Hall County has no exact count of the number of septic systems it has permitted in the Lake Lanier watershed, according to Kelly Hairston, Director Hall County Environmental Health. “There was an approximation of 40,000 septic systems in Hall County, however this was an estimate based on available water and sewer account data,” he said. But many of these systems may be in a different watershed from Lanier’s. Cochran pointed out that the county’s geography places many in the Oconee River watershed rather than in the Chattahoochee’s. Both the Chattahoochee and Chestatee Rivers feed into Lanier from North Georgia.
 
Hairston said he is not aware of any septic tank research projects being conducted in Hall County. Shields said researchers in Gwinnett will use staff from the Georgia Water Resources Institute and subcontract with the University of Georgia and Cornell University for some facets of the project. The project will entail sampling and monitoring groundwater quality and flow, lake water and lake sediment in developed and undeveloped areas.

Posted online 12/27/17
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