Clean water groups highlight progress for the Chattahoochee, call for more success stories

Environment Georgia

Atlanta, GA. – On the heels of the 42nd anniversary of the Clean Water Act, a new report tells the story of how the bedrock environmental law has helped to restore and protect the Chattahoochee River. As a result of the lawsuit brought against the city of Atlanta by the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, more than 400 million gallons of sewer spills per year were eliminated, and by 2014, the volume of untreated sewage that flows into the river and its tributaries has been reduced by 99% compared with the 1990s.

Environment Georgia released Waterways Restored, a series of case studies compiled by Environment Georgia Research & Policy Center, to highlight the need for a new rule to restore protections for 57% of the state’s rivers and streams.

“The Clean Water Act has brought progress to the Chattahoochee, but the law’s promise isn’t yet fulfilled,” said Marlaina Maddux, campaign organizer with Environment Georgia.  “All of our rivers and streams deserve a success story.”

Sewage discharges from Atlanta fouled the Chattahoochee for decades, contaminating the river with floating feces and harmful bacteria, making recreation unsafe, and damaging fish and wildlife. Action taken under the Clean Water Act has resulted in Atlanta reducing its sewage discharges to the river by 99%. Wildlife is beginning to return, as are boating and fishing opportunities, according to the Environment Georgia Research & Policy Center report.

“With the race-to-the-bottom mentality that was prevailing between the states during the 1950’s and 1960’s, water quality was getting worse and worse. It took the nationally focused Clean Water Act to get this country’s water resources on the right track,” said Bill Sapp, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Without the Clean Water Act, the Chattahoochee would not be the gem that it is today.”

While the Chattahoochee is guaranteed protection under the Clean Water Act, nearly 40,000 miles of Georgia’s rivers and streams are not, thanks to a loophole in the law secured by developers and other polluters in a Supreme Court decision nearly a decade ago.

“The Chattahoochee River and its tributaries and lakes are cleaner today, thanks largely to a group of concerned citizens and the tools afforded to them under the Clean Water Act,” said Sally Bethea, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and Executive Director. “Using the citizen-suit provisions of the Clean Water Act, we sued the City to clean up the river. After several years of litigation we reached a landmark settlement requiring $2 billion in remedial action,” said David Pope, the Riverkeeper’s lawyer. “To the City’s credit, it met its obligations. This shows what engaged citizens can accomplish.”

In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule to clarify protections for the headwaters, streams, and wetlands left in limbo by the loophole. But oil companies, agribusinesses, and developers are campaigning bitterly against it, and last month the U.S. House voted to block the rule. Advocates, however, stress broad support for the proposal from environmental groups, farmers, small businesses, and ordinary citizens. More than 500,000 public comments in support of the proposed rule were delivered to EPA today in Washington D.C., 1,050 of which were generated here in Georgia.

“What the rule would do is clarify protections for streams, wetlands, and other water bodies that 4.9 million Georgians use for drinking water,” explains Sapp. “Enforcing these protections not only represents the basic interests of the state and its citizens, but also preserves these water bodies for Georgia’s flourishing tourism and recreational industries, and the jobs they support.”

While the Chattahoochee is getting cleaner, polluters still dump about 12,621,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into waterways statewide each year. Protection from pollution and development for the smaller streams that flow into the Chattahoochee is crucial to protecting the Chattahoochee for future generations.

“The only way to continue the Chattahoochee on the path to success is to protect all the rivers and streams that flow into it,” said Maddux. “That’s why it’s so important for EPA to restore protections for all the waters that crisscross our state.”