‘Is the lake water safe?’
By Jane Harrison
Pat and Charles Marr had questions about Lake Lanier’s water quality after Pat’s doctor advised her not to swim in the lake. The couple, who reside in a lakeside development off McEver Road in Gainesville, sought to find out about lake water safety at a Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Lunch-n-Learn session last month at the Hall County Library.
They left with some advice from CRK Headwaters Protection Specialist Dale Caldwell. “I won’t tell you not to swim in Lake Lanier,” said the environmentalist who grew up fishing and swimming in the north Georgia lake and still enjoys cooling dips on hot summer days. “But you have to keep an eye on it.
Are there pollutants coming into the lake? Yes,” especially after rain.
Caldwell, one of two full time CRK staff members at the river watchdog’s Gainesville office, sloshes out to lake tributaries during downpours to get samples of whatever’s washing in. He has documented high levels of e-coli bacteria draining into Flat Creek, fertilizers and pesticides leaching in from farms and neighborhoods, and silt flowing down from improperly installed sediment controls.
“Don’t swim or kayak after it rains,” he advised. Whether to get in the lake or not depends on each individual’s immune system, he added.
In many ways, the lake and its tributaries are cleaner now than they have been, said Caldwell, whose charge is watching over the Chattahoochee River headwaters from the river’s source near Helen to Buford Dam, which holds Lake Lanier. He noted that recent CRK testing shows water quality to be “in check,” owing to improved technologies and lack of rain during the current drought. Lake water meets test standards “most of the time,” he said, but five test sites have been problematic in the past.
The water is certainly safer than before the 1972 enforcement of the Federal Clean Water Act when area rivers actually caught on fire, he said. Newer technologies at wastewater treatment plants in Gwinnett County and Gainesville have resulted in cleaner discharges. Caldwell said he likes to think that education and efforts to work with farmers and developers have encouraged better practices to keep pollution in check.
But non-point pollution from ever-expanding development poses a bigger threat than ever. When it rains, oily residue, chemicals, bacteria, silt and trash from numerous sources run off impervious surfaces and eventually drain into the creeks and rivers that feed the lake.
CRK’s crew analyzes 10 sites monthly from April to October, plus volunteers take surface samples from about 24 active sites every week. Caldwell said CRK and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division average their numbers to calculate Chlorophyll A and bacteria levels along a 70-mile route. A chart shows spikes of bacteria levels after rain events, especially on Flat Creek, which forms a watery alley through the heart of Gainesville’s poultry processing sector.
Caldwell said CRK considers Flat Creek one of the most polluted waterways in the state due to high levels of e-coli, which occasionally measured thousands of times greater than the safety standard. “That’s some nasty water,” Caldwell said, adding that run off from poultry processing plants “turns the water gray.”
A CRK investigation of two plants revealed the pollution comes not from processing chickens, but from residue from chicken trucks in the parking lots. When it rains or when the trucks are washed in the lots, the drainage seeps into Flat Creek.
Caldwell said that CRK took their findings to EPA, which fined the plants and required corrective action. He reported that Pilgrim’s Pride invested $1 million to install a 70,000 gallon tank to hold water for pre-treatment. The company also hired a compliance manager who regularly attends CRK meetings.
This is the type of success story CRK hopes will come with more education, Caldwell said. He noted that it took a CRK lawsuit and $2 billion in taxpayers’ money for the city of Atlanta to clean up sewage leaks. Now, when CRK records a high level of pollutants in Atlanta tributaries, “we call the city and they fix it.”
“In this area, you can’t just pick up the phone and have someone change (unsafe drainage practices) overnight,” Caldwell said. However he did mention a quick repair by the city of Flowery Branch when a neighborhood water-watcher found a raw sewage leak.
But, overall, he believes people living in the upper Chattahoochee watershed will initiate change over time as they learn more about the public health hazard posed by pollutants washing into their creeks, rivers and lakes. He asserted that just as he’s willing to pay more for eggs from free range, organically fed chickens, there are folks who won’t blink at paying more for developers and municipalities to invest in practices to ensure their water is safe.
“If we don’t step up and develop in a smart way, we’ll be forced to have regulations,” he said. He pointed out that “people don’t want to be regulated,” but at some point, such as before the Clean Water Act, regulations become necessary when people don’t “step up and do the right thing.” He indicated that doing the right thing might involve reporting dirty run-off and urging developers to invest in protecting water quality.
“If you see dirt in the road (from run-off) it’s going to get into a creek. Give us a call please,” Caldwell said. The cities and counties in the area do a “pretty good” job enforcing erosion control, he said. But it also takes individuals, like the Marrs on McEver, who volunteered to do sampling in their neighborhood, to assure the water’s safe to drink and play in.
Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Water Monitoring
Posted online 3/31/17