Multiple miles of rivers and streams in the Athens area currently sit on a list of “impaired waterways” put out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To be considered impaired, a waterway has to fall below certain federal water standards which outline the acceptable level of pollutants which can be present in a sample. According to the EPA website, these standards vary based on the waterway’s “designated” use, such as swimming or drinking for example.
A 2014 EPA water quality assessment marked 25 miles of the Upper Oconee Watershed as impaired. While the Upper Oconee encompasses a substantial area of northeast Georgia, most of the impaired miles of water were located within a few miles of the city of Athens, including Barrow, Falling, and Harris Creeks. All three creeks sit south of the city.
Shannon Bonney, the project coordinator at Watershed UGA, an organization based at the University of Georgia dedicated to improving watershed quality and sustainability on the university’s campus, said the fact the impaired miles fall close to a developed area like Athens is no surprise.
“Currently it’s pretty hard to have pristine rivers and streams in and around cities, and the state gives those waters a lower standard of quality to meet because of this,” Bonney said. “However, even though that bar might be lower, these rivers aren’t even meeting that benchmark.”
Bonney said the impairment label does not indicate the waterways are “incredible unsafe” but instead they do not meet the level of cleanliness desired of them.
Bonney said the biggest reason for water impairment in Athens is due to unacceptably high levels of bacteria.
“In Athens, in our impaired waterways, we tend to perform the poorest in terms of the e. Coli. bacteria which, for lack of a more polite term, comes from poop,” Bonney said. “Generally the biggest sources here come from leaking septic tanks, and maybe more surprisingly, from pet waste.”
Bonney said the age and “lack of maintenance” of many septic systems in Athens were the reasons for the high levels of contamination associated with them. Contamination from pet waste, on the other hand, largely results from “storm runoff” washing into the local rivers and streams.
Bonney said the damaging impact of invasive plant species is also a factor on watershed health in the area.
“Invasive plant species, such as honeysuckle and knotweed can hugely affect water quality because they can increase erosion on riverbanks and displace the natural forest canopy which can affect the shade rivers get,” Bonney said. “The shade really affects water temperature, which a lot of river processes are driven by, such as the rate of algae growth.”
Because of the unsatisfactory health of these waterways, there has been significant momentum over the past few years into lowering the amount of pollutants entering community water sources, not only by Watershed UGA but other university initiatives and the city as well.
This has included the inclusion of “green infrastructure” which is designed to the amount of and speed into which storm runoff enters rivers and streams. Reducing the amount and speed of runoff can significantly lower the rate of erosion.
“A great example of green infrastructure on campus are the rain gardens which are depressions that have plants in them which collect stormwater,” Bonney said. “Water that collects in these gardens filters through the soil rather than running directly into the streams and rivers.”