Setting the Record Straight
by Jackie Echols
(from February & March 2013 newsletter)
Like the legendary Phoenix, South River is rising. Hindering the river's climb is the fact that it is being held to a higher standard by public and government officials that have the ability to influence the river's future in very positive ways. South River is being held to a higher standard than any other river in the Atlanta area or the state for that matter. Why, is not completely clear and rather than speculate, it is more important to set the record straight!
It is important that individuals who hold sway over the future of the river throw their weight behind propelling the river forward, rather than holding it back. Just as folks paddle, kayak, tube and enjoy the Chattahoochee, Yellow, Oconee, Flint, Altamaha, Ogeechee, Etowah and other great Georgia rivers, citizens of south DeKalb County and surrounding jurisdictions have an equal right to enjoy South River, our river, in the same ways.
The issue is the presence of fecal coliform bacteria in South River. The truth of the matter is that fecal coliform bacteria impact the water quality of every urban river in America including those listed above. Fecal coliform bacteria are the most common contaminants of natural waters. It lives in the digestive tracks of warm-blooded animals. Although most of these bacteria are not harmful and are part of the normal digestive system, some can cause illness, if swallowed.
The presence of fecal coliform indicates the possible presence of organisms that can cause illness. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set acceptable limits for fecal coliform in water based upon the use of the water. For example, water used for drinking cannot contain any fecal coliform bacteria while swimming may contain up to 400 fecal coliform colonies/ 100 ml (100 ml is about 3.4 fluid ounces).
The main source of fecal coliform bacteria in urban rivers across Georgia and the United States is from stormwater runoff that washes animal waste into waterways. The most contaminated stormwater runoff is referred to as the "first-flush", the initial quarter inch or so of rain that washes pollution off roads and streets and into storm drains. After the first flush the amount of pollution in stormwater runoff is significantly diminished. There are two important points to keep in mind about stormwater especially as it related to South River. First, it runs off very quickly and second, when there is little or no rain for weeks on end fecal coliform bacteria from stormwater runoff will be minimal.
Other factors contribute to fecal coliform bacteria contamination. Rainwater seeps and flows into sanitary sewer pipes and manholes causing overflows a situation which is made worse by clogs caused by fats, oils, and grease. Dry weather discharges are caused by sewer line breaks and collapse. Stormwater overwhelms combined sewer systems causing combined sewer overflows. Wastewater treatment plants malfunction and residential septic systems fail.
The circumstances that result in fecal coliform bacteria contamination of rivers and streams play out all over Atlanta and Georgia every day, no exceptions. The presence of fecal coliform bacteria should not be used to scare people away from South River or limit the river's future. Instead, it should be viewed as an opportunity to educate the community on the safe use of the river for recreation and enjoyment and how fecal coliform contamination can be reduced with their help. Only through use will South River continue to improve.