Classic City Water

Combatting water pollution in Athens, Georgia

When precipitation meets the Earth, it has to go somewhere. In Athens, Georgia, rainfall that cannot penetrate hard surfaces generates runoff that eventually flows into storm drains and empties into the rivers that provide drinking water for the county. During the journey of this water from initial ground contact to final output in local waterways, pollutants and toxins are picked up along the way, most of which can be traced back to human action.

The traditional way of dealing with stormwater does not treat it.
— Katie Hill, legal associate at the University of Georgia River Basin Center

Hill explained that the water from rainfall that ends up back in local streams and rivers often contains litter, oil, sediment and pet waste that it comes into contact with while traveling over impervious surfaces like parking lots, driveways, sidewalks and roads. These unwanted additions to the water are not filtered out through storm drains, but rather empty directly into the water supply, causing harm to aquatic life and habitats.  

To combat these pollutants entering the local water supply and doing more damage, specific attention by the county government and the University of Georgia is placed on maintaining healthy watersheds, areas of land where water falls and drains off into an outlet.

“Anything that is happening on land within watersheds impacts water quality because it all runs off to the common outlet,” Tyra Byers, program coordinator at the University of Georgia Office of Sustainability, said. “We look in those basins for how we can improve the water quality by reducing the pollutants and toxins that are on the ground.”

The number one pollutant of Athens waterways is fecal coliform, the bacteria found in animal waste. This bacteria can be detrimental to stream habitats, killing aquatic life and using up the oxygen needed for plant and animal survival. Athens-Clarke County has several campaigns and initiatives to encourage pet owners to pick up after their animals in order to stop “poo-llution.” Pet waste disposal bags and trash bins can be found at local parks and recreational areas throughout the county for this reason and aim to lessen the input of fecal coliform into the water supply.

Cleaning up pet waste in a bag and putting it in the trash has a big impact [on water quality].
— Tyra Byers, program coordinator at the University of Georgia Office of Sustainability

Another way the local government works to protect water in Athens-Clarke County is by charging its property owners a stormwater utility fee in order to fund programs that maintain and preserve community water. This fee pays for water quality sampling, storm drain cleaning and infrastructure maintenance among other things.

Cecile Riker, program education specialist for Athens-Clarke County Stormwater Management, explained that wastewater and stormwater are two completely different things that people often get confused. Wastewater flows from industrial and domestic drains and sewer systems and goes to a treatment facility while stormwater flows directly from storm drains into local water supply without being filtered or treated, making the county stormwater utility fee especially beneficial and important for water health.

“A big part of what I do is to try and raise awareness of the water resources that we have in our community and ways to keep them healthy,” Riker said. “Helping people make that connection between what they are doing… and what may potentially end up in a river later down the road.”