Presumptions on Water Quality can Pollute Minds

By Harold Brown

Projections of metro Atlanta’s deteriorating water quality are many and presumptive, usually with warnings of looming problems exploited as leverage for some cause or project.

According to numerous assessments, urban development is degrading water quality and impervious surfaces such as roads, parking lots and roofs are causing pollution of streams. Atlanta’s Water Initiative report of 2000 reinforced this: “As stormwater travels over roads, parking lots, lawns and roofs, it picks up pollutants which are then deposited directly into streams.”

Crisis is impending in headlines, too. For the Etowah River, which waters northern Atlanta, it was “A River Under Siege” in 1992; “High pollution levels threaten Lake Allatoona” in 2000 and “Endangered Etowah – Growth troubles its waters” in 2003.

Respected sources support these gloomy projections about water pollution from urban development. In a report for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the University of Georgia noted, “Unfortunately, along with the boom of new construction and economic pros­perity, come harmful consequences to the environ­ment as well as to the quality of life of Georgia’s citizens.” And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cited a 1999 Kennesaw State University study that concluded, “Lake Allatoona in Cherokee and Bartow counties will be unfit for water use or recreation in just 10 years, largely because of runoff.”

Naturally, citizens come to believe and expect that urban development makes the water dirty.

It doesn’t. Careless management pollutes water, but metro Atlanta’s management is mostly good. Water quality in the Etowah River and Lake Allatoona has improved, not worsened. Eutrophication – low oxygen caused by nutrient pollution  – at Allatoona in 2001 was at its lowest value since 1985, according to Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division. In 2004, warnings against eating fish contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were removed from this lake because PCBs had decreased below harmful levels. Oxygen in the Etowah River at Canton, upstream from Allatoona Lake, has not decreased since the 1970s, phosphorus has not increased in more than a decade and suspended sediment measured in 2001 and 2002 was the lowest ever.

Then there’s Gwinnett County, where the population increased 250 percent between 1980 and 2000 and 40 percent since 1996. The U.S. Geological Survey studied pollution in six Gwinnett streams since 1996; in those six watersheds, 10,000 acres changed classification from undeveloped to developed from 1998 to 2002.

Given the claims that urban sprawl is causing massive pollution, no one would be blamed for believing that the Gwinnett streams have become more polluted. Yet the USGS reported no increase in any of the contaminants measured through 2003, including sediment. Updated measurements through 2004 using data from the USGS Web site also show no increase in pollution. (See chart on sediment.)

Sampling of other suburban streams around Atlanta has been sporadic since the early 1990s, but there are nearly no instances of pollution becoming worse. Pollutant levels have remained the same or decreased. In some cases, as for phosphorus in the Flint River and Peachtree Creek, decreases were dramatic. (See chart.)

Storm water running off hot pavement is presumed to make streams run warmer and threaten aquatic life. According to the Clean Water Initiative report, “Temperature readings along the main stem of the Chattahoochee River have shown as much as a 20-degree temperature increase during a summer storm.”

It seems perfectly logical, but that hasn’t happened. Temperatures on the Chattahoochee have changed over time, but the change is mainly due to cooling by water releases from Buford Dam and heat from electric power generators. Temperatures of the six Gwinnett County watersheds didn’t increase from 1996 to 2004. Peachtree Creek has not gotten warmer since 1960. Nor has the Etowah River at Canton, in spite of warnings about development along the river.

Georgia Power Co., often cast as the villain, in recent years offered to go further than the state requires by ensuring that the water released from two metro power plants is the same temperature as the intake water. According to the Clean Water Initiative, “By reducing Georgia Power’s heat impact to zero and upgrading treatment facilities, the Chattahoochee is projected to have capacity to accept approximately 200 MGD (million gallons a day) of additional wastewater discharges without violating dissolved oxygen standards. This additional capacity could serve 1.5 million people over the next 20 years.” That’s a lot of cooling of the Chattahoochee that most Atlantans haven’t heard about.

Much like the adage that good news is no news, good water management practices don’t usually create headlines. They do, however, help explain the lack of devastation defying urban sprawl’s doomsayers. If “Best Management Practices,” stream buffers and environmental commitment by citizens (including developers) can’t protect streams, their protection is hopeless. Commonsense management is indeed holding water. By far, the greatest improvement in Atlanta’s water occurred in the 1970s and 1980s; the preponderance of evidence shows that it has not deteriorated since then and in many streams is still improving.


University of Georgia Professor Emeritus Harold Brown is an Adjunct Scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (July 28, 2006). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.