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Monday, October 26, 2009

Soapbox: Next mayor can't slack on Atlanta's sewer overhaul

click to enlarge Sally Bethea
  • Sally Bethea

In addition to crime, finances and transportation, Atlanta's next mayor has a sizable task on his or her to-do list: continue fixing the city's antiquated sewer system. Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattachoochee Riverkeeper, reminds the candidates not to lose sight of the estimated $4.1 billion project.

Eight short years ago, Atlanta’s aging sewer system was a disgrace to its citizens and to the state of Georgia. It was also illegal.

When the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper sued the city of Atlanta in 1995 for violations of the Clean Water Act, hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage were routinely dumped into our streams and the river.

Although a federal judge ruled that the city had to clean up its act, then Mayor Bill Campbell did little but stall, leaving it to the next mayor to solve the problem, even while the judge threatened a moratorium on new development because Atlanta did not have the sewage infrastructure to support such development.

When Mayor Shirley Franklin took office 8 years ago, it was a welcome change for UCR to finally find a real partner in the massive sewer repair and rehabilitation. The new Mayor even called herself “The Sewer Mayor,” and was not willing to pass on this problem to yet another generation. Mayor Franklin also undertook an aggressive program to rebuild Atlanta’s drinking water system at the same time the city overhauled its sewage system.

Both these expensive public works programs received less than half a percent of their total cost (funding) from the federal government and low-interest loans from the state. Atlantans taxed themselves to pay for it, and the work to date - done on time and within budget – has been “remarkable,” as observed by the federal judge in charge of overseeing the work. Anyone who tells you different is selling something other than clean water.

Atlanta’s next mayor must be someone who understands the progress we’ve made and who is determined to finish the job. Whatever anyone may think of Mayor Franklin’s performance on any other issue, both voters and candidates for mayor need to keep this in mind: under her leadership, with the hard work of the Department of Watershed Management, the end is in sight for Atlanta’s polluting of the Chattahoochee River and its tributaries.

This work will vastly improve water quality for Atlantans, the metro region, and downstream communities. It will be up to the next mayor to make good on the investment Atlanta has made so far by completing this work by the deadlines established in the federal consent that settled UCR’s lawsuit. Failure to finish this work in a timely basis could result in direct court supervision of its completion, with no regard to political or local economic considerations, a step the judge has made plain he will not hesitate to invoke.

(Photo by Joeff Davis)

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