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Mayor Franklin Leads Atlanta's Infrastructure Overhaul

March 15, 2004

When Shirley Franklin took office as mayor of Atlanta in 2001, the city was reviled by virtually every environmental group in the South because of its polluted streams and rivers. One such group, the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (UCR), had even filed suit against the city, alleging violations of state and federal clean water legislation.

The problem was the city's decrepit water and wastewater infrastructure, which was no longer capable of properly collecting and treating the wastewater and stormwater that eventually was discharged back into those streams and rivers. To stave off a court battle, the city had agreed to make system-wide improvements that would significantly decrease pollution in the river.

That agreement, the 1998 Consent Decree, bound Atlanta to a program that would eliminate combined sewer overflow violations. A second agreement, the First Amended Consent Decree, addressed sanitary sewer overflows. Together, the two agreements committed the city to a program that would cost an estimated $3 billion and involve reconstruction and rehabilitation of the entire wastewater collection system.

Franklin knew what she was up against. Nonetheless, she embraced the requirements of the Consent Decrees and vowed to go beyond them. In one of her first major acts, she created the Department of Watershed Management (DWM) to pull the wastewater system and Consent Decree work under one umbrella. With the dissolution of the contract with United Water, the private contractor that had been operating the city's drinking water system, that function also was brought into the DWM. When, in the near future, the city creates its first-ever stormwater utility, "all things water," as DWM Commissioner Jack Ravan says, will be located in the new department.

The mayor also established the Clean Water Atlanta initiative to provide the foundation for the Consent Decree work. It was a daunting undertaking, but Franklin was determined to make it work. And, while Atlanta still is in the early stages of a construction program scheduled to run through 2014 and facing the possibility of water and sewer rates tripling, her efforts thus far have drawn praise from all sides—even from the environmental groups that once dogged the city.

Less than two years after taking office, Mayor Franklin stood before UCR members as she was named recipient of the River Guardian award, which honors one person every year who has made significant efforts toward protecting the Chattahoochee River and its tributaries.

"The mayor has shown extraordinary leadership in addressing Atlanta's sewer problems," UCR Executive Director Sally Bethea said. The group cited her leadership on the Consent Decree efforts and her creation of the DWM as among the actions that prove her dedication to improving the river's water quality.

Fixing the System

The city looked at three options—full sewer separation in all six basins, a tunnel storage and treatment system, and a combination of the two—in response to the Consent Decree. Atlanta solicited extensive public input (more than 100 public participation meetings were held from September 1998 through January 2001) and established a task force headed by Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough to sort through the options and recommend a course of action.

Because of cost factors, the ability to achieve the best water quality results, and the ability to complete the work by the 2007 deadline, the task force recommended the third option, which called for separation of 27 percent of the city's remaining combined sewers, construction of tunnels for storage of wastewater and stormwater, and construction of two dedicated CSO treatment plants.

The program calls for construction of two tunnels, the West Area CSO tunnel and the Nancy Creek SSO tunnel. The 8.5-mile-long West Area tunnel will have a 24-foot diameter and 177-million-gallon storage volume. An 85-million-gallon-a-day dewatering pump station will transfer the flow from the tunnel to a new treatment plant.

Additional Benefits

The city already has spent $600 million to overhaul its four water reclamation centers. Atlanta also is upgrading its pump stations, undertaking construction of relief sewers and relining failing sewers; last year, the city celebrated the completion of 100 miles- worth of relining projects.

Under Operation Clean Sewer, the city has set goals of :

  • inspecting 15 percent of the system per year (about 20 miles per month) to identify problems;
  • cleaning 25 precent of the system per year (about 30 miles of sewer per month) to remove debris and grease; and
  • relining 1.5 percent of the system in the first year to keep stormwater out.

The city also implemented a comprehensive grease management program in January 2003, which includes a permitting process and an enforcement program.

Further Consent Decree requirements will have more of an aesthetic impact. The city agreed to spend $2.5 million to remove debris from six CSO-receiving streams (nearly 37 miles of stream), and to spend another $25 million to acquire greenways along streams in the Chattahoochee and South River basins.

Atlanta's water and sewer infrastructure needed a mayor with that mindset. Franklin has been in office a little more than two years, but the city already is feeling the effects of her dedication. Ten years from now, when the period is put on the final Consent Decree work, Franklin will be remembered as the "Sewer Mayor." That is the way she would want it.