Sunday, July 14, 2002

Gwinnett plant drives water re-use project
Facility sends treated sewage to Lake Lanier

By Dave Williams
Times-Union staff writer

BUFORD -- The clear water flowing into a metal sink at the end of the line at Gwinnett County, Ga.'s, state-of-the-art sewer plant looks inviting enough.

The sign above the sink, however, says "Do not drink. Non-potable water."

But that's more a legal technicality and psychological nicety than a health warning, said Frank Stephens, deputy director of engineering for the suburban Atlanta county's Department of Public Utilities.

"Our tap water doesn't meet the discharge standards of this facility," he said. "We're pretty proud of this."

While no one's drinking the water directly from the high-tech plant, the final product is going back where it came from -- to replenish nearby Lake Lanier, chief water source for a booming region of nearly 4 million people.

It's the most ambitious example in Georgia of water re-use, a technology that promises to play a key role in meeting rising demand for water in a region hampered by water-supply limits imposed by geography.

Atlanta, the Southeast's most populous metropolitan area, relies on surface water for 98 percent of its needs. Yet, the Chattahoochee River Basin, which supplies 80 percent of that water, is one of the smallest rivers in the country serving a major city.

State and local business and political leaders long have recognized the need to overcome that disparity. That's why Atlanta is home to Georgia's first regional water agency, the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District.

The legislation creating the district, enacted by the Georgia General Assembly last year, gave it two short-term assignments, due to be completed by this fall. They include boosting sewer capacity in targeted areas and drafting a model ordinance metro-Atlanta communities can use to control stormwater runoff.

With regulations already in place limiting discharges from sewer plants and industries, runoff has become by far the biggest source of pollution of the region's rivers and streams.

"A number of local governments have used some of the techniques we have in the ordinance," said Rick Brownlow, principal planner for the Atlanta Regional Commission, which is providing staff to the water district. "We're not reinventing the wheel."

The district also is working on a comprehensive long-term water-supply plan and a conservation strategy that includes water re-use.

The most pressing priority is addressing a shortage of sewage capacity in parts of northern Fulton County, a series of suburban communities north of Atlanta, and Forsyth County, just beyond Fulton at the edge of the region's northward expansion.

Sewer-hookup moratoriums in those areas have halted growth in its tracks.

Stephens said Gwinnett County was facing the same dilemma a decade ago but built its way out of trouble with the construction of two major sewer plants using traditional technology. The new high-tech plant came on line in February of last year.

Stephens said Gwinnett either had to stay ahead of growing demand or risk losing its identity as an affordable community for families.

"It's a great place to bring up kids," he said. "[But] if we, as a service provider failed to provide that infrastructure, the only growth that would occur in Gwinnett would be large single-family homes."

The newer plant takes sewage treatment several steps beyond the technology used by most plants, using chemicals and filters to remove not only biological materials from the water, but also phosphorus and nitrogen.

In fact, its critics applaud the technology. What has prompted a neighborhood group and two environmental organizations to mount a legal challenge against the project is its state-issued permit.

"The designer and builder of the plant both said it can produce lower levels of phosphorus than the permit requires," said Jackie Joseph, president of the Lake Lanier Association. "Our question is, 'Why don't you put that in the permit?'''

But Stephens said the purpose of any permit is to set upper limits for contaminants.

"Any sewer plant doing its job is going to be below its limits," he said.

Joel Cowan, the Atlanta water district's chairman, said a psychological obstacle to public acceptance of the Gwinnett plant is the lake's function as both an intake for drinking water and an outfall for sewer discharge.

"Yet, if you put [treated sewage] in a stream and let it flow downstream for a mile, it seems all right," he said.

Stephens said the ultimate form of water re-use would be direct recycling of water from sewer plants to drinking water. Direct recycling, however, faces not only public aversion; it's illegal under federal and state laws, he said.

"We're probably decades away from doing that," he said. "But Gwinnett would be a willing participant."

Staff writer Dave Williams can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or via e-mail at davemns@mindspring.com.