What Can We Learn From Atlanta’s Water Challenges?

Atlanta faces many challenges and opportunities related to water infrastructure. These are problems that are (or are soon-to-be) common across American cities.

The Chattahoochee River | Alan Cressler

American Rivers believes all people should have access to safe, clean water and healthy rivers. To this end we are working nationally and regionally to advance integrated water management (IWM) approaches to ensure enough clean water, with a specific focus on Atlanta, GA; Harrisburg, PA; Raleigh/Durham, NC; Richmond/San Pablo, CA; Toledo, OH; Milwaukee, WI; and Tucson, AZ. We work with partners to advance IWM by advancing policy, providing technical support and convening water utility, city, and community leaders.

American Rivers was recently invited by the US Water Alliance and the Atlanta Regional Commission to share our take on critical water management challenges and opportunities in Atlanta that have national relevance. The way we see it, Atlanta’s primary challenges and opportunities are:

  1. Water sharing & governance
  2. Access to safe, affordable water
  3. Building all infrastructure as water infrastructure
  4. Multi-benefit infrastructure without displacement

Water Sharing & Governance

Flooding from Hurricane Matthew damages homes near Selma, North Carolina, October 12, 2016. | U.S. Army National Guard
Flooding from Hurricane Matthew damages homes near Selma, North Carolina, October 12, 2016. | U.S. Army National Guard

Communities across the country are challenged to manage water sustainably, economically and equitably. Within the context of the 27 year Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) water conflict (in the courts again as of last week) and another emerging drought, communities across Georgia are struggling with questions such as how to manage this finite resource in the face of uncertainty, climate change and increasing demands, How much water is enough for our communities, industries, and rivers given the likelihood of more frequent and intense drought and flood? How do we manage our rivers so that communities throughout the basin share water equitably, among stakeholders, and sustainably, with the resource itself in mind? These are very difficult, very big questions and thus far the answers have been elusive.

To develop answers that work for all stakeholders and the rivers, we need a number of things: we need better data, we need better management practices, we need state level policies and enforcement protective of river flows, but most of all we need a representative group of stakeholders to agree upon a clear framework for decision making and water sharing that will enable the sustainable management of this finite resource, a recommendation put forward by a group known as the ACF Stakeholders.

Access to Safe, Affordable Water

We all need clean drinking water. | CDC
We all need clean drinking water. | CDC

The Flint, Michigan drinking water crisis exposed the challenges that cities continue to face as they struggle to provide basic services, such as drinking water, to their citizens. The water crisis has also highlighted the challenges that low-income communities face as they attempt to have their voices heard on water infrastructure issues by decision-makers at the local, regional, and national level. With some of the highest wastewater and drinking water rates in the country, water affordability is a serious issue in Atlanta. The City of Atlanta has some good programs, namely Care and Conserve, which can serve as models for other cities. However, these high rates still serve as a disincentive to creating a stormwater utility, leaving the city with significant urban flooding and water quality issues without a revenue stream to address them. We need to find ways to make water infrastructure at the system level affordable by securing reliable revenue streams, while at the same time making sure that access to affordable, safe, clean water is available to all.

All Infrastructure is Water Infrastructure

Building all infrastructure as water infrastructure will be critical to effective water management and infrastructure affordability. Streets and highways can provide stormwater conveyance, treatment and infiltration as well as transportation corridors. Buildings can (and some already do) incorporate wastewater, stormwater, and drinking water infrastructure. As we look ahead in many cities, including Atlanta, to adding population and redeveloping our urban cores, we have an opportunity to incorporate water into all planning (transportation, public health, etc.) at all scales. We can transform linear processes that produce waste into loops that use waste products as resources – like the Emory Water Hub. We can keep the resource closer to its source helping to restore the natural hydrological cycle. Moreover, we can make infrastructure less costly overall by having all our infrastructure multi-task and provide more benefits.

Multi-benefit Infrastructure without Displacement 

In our race, urgency and excitement to build the next generation of infrastructure, we must be careful not to make the same mistakes or commit the same injustices as in the past. In previous generations, the infrastructure of choice was the highway, or the stadium, or the public housing project. Today’s transition toward green infrastructure must be careful to avoid committing these same injustices.

Peter Raabe
Backyard rain garden in Raleigh, NC

One amazing accomplishment of Atlanta’s is the recently released Green Infrastructure Strategic Action Plan, which is moving green infrastructure forward across the city to address flooding and relieve capacity in combined sewer areas. As more green stormwater infrastructure is implemented across the city, communities will see improved quality of life in the form of increased greenspace, trees and stormwater management. As quality of life improves in low income and culturally diverse communities, there must be policies in place to address gentrification and displacement as property values rise. In Atlanta, equity is not built in to the process yet, this is a critical next step.

Pulling it together

Ensuring access to clean water and healthy rivers requires that we address water sharing and governance, access to safe and affordable water, building all infrastructure as water infrastructure, and multi-benefit infrastructure without displacement. Each of these issues has growing relevance in Atlanta and across the U.S.; each requires that we engage in solving our water challenges at multiple scales (neighborhood, city, watershed); and each requires engaging with diverse partners and forging unprecedented collaborations. Stay tuned for our At the Water’s Edge series of blogs expanding on each of these four issue areas.

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