The Etowah River begins its 164-mile journey in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains north of Dahlonega, winding southwest through Canton to form Lake Allatoona.
Many have concerns about what happens to Cherokee County’s main raw water source along that journey to consumers, but there are many things residents can do to help improve water quality.
Experts say there are three distinct topics related to water quality that influence the rivers and reservoirs that supply millions of gallons of clean water every day, through the Cherokee County Water and Sewerage Authority and the city of Canton, to more than 180,000 residents in the county.
Watershed and stormwater, the water supply and wastewater affect the overall water quality, and there are many ways for individuals to help protect this important resource.
Watershed and stormwater
Marjorie Hicks, Cherokee County’s stormwater coordinator, said the biggest water quality problem in most regions, including here in Cherokee, is “nonpoint source” pollution.
The Clean Water Campaign describes stormwater pollution, or nonpoint source pollution, as rainwater that runs off of rooftops, lawns, driveways and streets, and picks up contaminants that are then carried into storm drains and eventually end up in our streams and rivers.
“People generally think of water pollution as coming from ‘point sources’ such as specific industries at specific locations,” Hicks said. “But those types of pollution sites are generally now well regulated by the Clean Water Act. The nonpoint sources of pollution are much more difficult to control because they are so diverse.”
Some of the main causes of nonpoint source pollution that Hicks noted are:
• Sediment from construction sites, when erosion control is ill-managed;
• Excess fertilizer, herbicide and insecticide, from residential, commercial and agricultural areas;
• Oil, grease and toxic chemicals that come from road and parking lot runoff;
• Bacteria and nutrients, from livestock, pet waste and faulty septic systems; and
• Grass clippings and leaves dumped into roadside storm drains.
David Kubala, Environmental Affairs manager for the Cherokee County Water and Sewerage Authority, said there are many things individuals can do to minimize stormwater pollution.
“The water that’s in the environment, that changes based on what’s happening, what mankind is doing, what the weather does,” Kubala said.
Kubala pointed to the Clean Water Campaign as a source for people to learn about proactive methods to reduce pollutants in runoff.
Pollutants such as antifreeze, motor oil, paint, trash and litter, pesticides, fertilizers, dirt, leaves and grass are commonly dumped, or are carried by runoff, into storm drains in neighborhoods and along roads.
According to the Clean Water Campaign, it takes only four quarts of used motor oil to contaminate a million gallons of drinking water.
The campaign suggests using funnels, drip pans and tarps to prevent car fluids from spilling or dripping onto the ground where they can be carried by runoff into a storm drain or waterway.
When it comes to lawn care, the Clean Water Campaign offers some tips on minimizing pollution.
• Keep leaves and grass out of the streets: They can stay on the lawn and be used as fertilizer, composted or bagged for curbside pickup.
• Select native plants: These require less fertilizer and pesticide since they are adapted to the area.
• Set a higher blade on the lawn mower: This can help grass develop a root system that is drought and pest resistant.
• Consider earth-friendly fertilizers, do not apply before heavy rains and sweep up fertilizer instead of washing it away with water.
Hicks said most lawns don’t need phosphorus, which can get into streams and lakes and ultimately affect the aquatic life and quality of water in the environment.
“Get your soil tested by the county extension service so you know exactly what and how much fertilizer you need,” Hicks said.
The Cherokee County Extension Office is at 100 North St., Suite G21, in Canton, and soil testing costs $8 per sample.
“The sediment, and any pollutants that get in the water, cost everybody money because the water that we get is from those streams. Cherokee County doesn’t get any of its drinking water from Lake Allatoona, it gets it all from the Etowah River and reservoirs on some of the bigger creeks,” Hicks said. “They have to clean that water to drinking water standards and that costs money. That’s significant.”
Another big factor affecting the quality of Cherokee County’s water is the loss of natural areas, especially forests, Hicks said.
The Georgia Forestry Commission says trees act as natural water filters, significantly slowing the movement of stormwater. This helps to lower runoff volume, soil erosion and flooding and can result in less money spent by the community to develop stormwater management infrastructure.
Hicks said Cherokee’s parks and natural areas are not only great for recreational use, but that they are “significant in helping to protect our water quality for many generations to come.”
“The Cherokee County Board of Commissioners had great foresight in proposing the parks bond back in 2008 when property prices had fallen to low levels due to the poor economy,” Hicks said. “With this bond funding, which was approved by the voters, the county was able to purchase a number of large tracts of land throughout the county for our citizens.”
Water supply and use
Kubala said that the Cherokee County Water and Sewerage Authority supplies water to about 172,000 residents in the county, and the amount of water the community uses varies from day to day depending heavily on the weather and on rainfall.
When it’s cold and wet, people tend to use less water outdoors. On the contrary, when it’s hot and dry people use more, Kubala said.
“July to date we’re averaging about 14 million gallons per day,” Kubala said two days before the end of the month. “July 2012 was about 17.7 million gallons per day.”
Kubala said the difference in the amount of water used can be attributed to hotter temperatures and less rainfall last July.
“We try to maintain a very, very high quality water that goes out to our customers, day-in and day-out, 365 days a year,” Kubala said.
Water quality reports are available on the CCWSA website and show the amounts of various substances that are monitored for by the water and sewerage authority each year.
Kubala said these numbers are fairly consistent year-to-year because the water brought into Cherokee homes is cleaned to meet Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
The Cherokee County Water and Sewerage Authority conducts ongoing monitoring at 21 sampling locations as part of two watershed monitoring and protection plans.
Some of the many different factors of water quality that Kubala said are being monitored are:
• Five in-stream parameters: pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, turbidity and temperature;
• Eight chemical parameters: total suspended solids, ammonia, total phosphorus, ortho-phosphate, total nitrogen, total kjeldhal nitrogen, nitrate/nitrite and alkalinity;
• Two bacteriological parameters: fecal coliform and E. coli; and
• Four metal parameters: cadmium, zinc, copper and lead.
Four sampling sites are specifically monitored during and/or after rain events, four are monitored for aquatic bug populations and two sites have sensors that monitor water quality and collect data every hour, Kubala said.
“In addition to routine work, CCWSA special projects target impaired water bodies and has resulted in the removal of six streams from the state list of impaired waters for fecal coliform,” Kubala said. “We have done a good bit to improve quality in the Upper Etowah and we continue to work on that as we go forward.”
Streams can be listed as being impaired for various reasons, and Kubala said the most common reasons that they are listed are for chemistry, biology or bacteriological reasons and/or pollutants.
Fecal coliform can cause bacteriological impairment. It can enter rivers and lakes through fecal discharge by animals in the environment, storm runoff and human sewage, as well as other causes.
Pet waste left on sidewalks and on the ground can be carried into storm drains in runoff and can upset the fish and aquatic life in rivers and lakes.
“Bacteriological impairment, that’s the one that you hear the most about,” Kubala said. “When somebody says that some beaches have been closed at Lake Allatoona because the fecal coliform count is above some level that the state has set, it’s considered to be not safe for human contact.”
Putting pet waste in the trash instead of leaving it on the ground helps to protect human health and the environment.
Kubala said the effects of education and conservation efforts are apparent and “we have a very good water source in the Etowah River.”
The Cherokee County Water and Sewerage Authority reaches about 3,500 people each year through environmental public education and outreach programs, Kubala said.
“We see the effects of conservation efforts by individuals, their efforts to use water more efficiently, and we’ve seen this trend since about 2007 or 2008, when we had our last very severe drought,” he said.
The Georgia Water Stewardship Act went into effect in June 2010, and limits outdoor watering to between the hours of 4 p.m. and 10 a.m. for the purposes of planting, growing, managing or maintaining ground cover, trees, shrubs or other plants.
Outdoor water use for reasons other than watering plants, like power washing or washing a car, is restricted to an odd/even schedule.
Odd-numbered addresses are allowed to use water on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, and even-numbered or unnumbered addresses on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.
Wastewater and spills
About 75,000 residents use sewer services from the Cherokee County Water and Sewerage Authority, Kubala said.
“We try to keep a real good check on our system, maintain it well, and most of the times when we see a spill it’s relatively minor in the duration and number of gallons that spill out, but we still report every one of them,” Kubala said.
In the past 12 months, the authority has reported eight spills. Five are classified as minor and three as major.
“When raw sewage reaches waters of the state it is considered a spill,” Kubala said. “If this occurs the spill response employee must go to the site and mark the upstream and downstream locations with informational signs, and take samples up and downstream of the spill.”
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division rules define a major spill as any spill that is more than 10,000 gallons.
Kubala said of the three spills classified as major, one was caused by grease and debris, one by operator error and the largest spill by a broken force main.
Three of the minor spills were caused by debris, and two were caused by structural defect.
“We do have programs for grease control, especially at the commercial level,” Kubala said. “But there are a lot of things the individual at home can do like not pouring grease down the drain, wiping out the grease, out of pots and pans, before those are washed and things like that, that are not a great chore for the individual to do, but it certainly helps to maintain the system, keeps it working good for them.”
When a spill happens, the response is immediate, Kubala said. Crews monitor the water after a spill, until it is no longer affecting the environment.
“Advancements in sewer preventive maintenance allow CCWSA to utilize three camera crews to visually inspect lines as well as monitor 52 trouble locations, or locations known to spill, and set up a jetting schedule to prevent spills,” Kubala said.
The Cherokee County Water and Sewerage Authority has a portable water jet tool that allows them to clear out lines that are stopped up, for example by a grease blockage.
The proactive monitoring and maintenance helps to prevent more sewer spills from happening.
Cherokee County residents have the opportunity to volunteer in cleanup events for the Etowah River and Lake Allatoona every fall.
In 2012, the Etowah River event had 62 volunteers who worked for 220 hours to clean up three miles of the river, according to the county.
The specific date for the fall Etowah River cleanup will be posted when it is scheduled, and last year’s event took place in early September.
The Great Lake Allatoona Cleanup brings thousands together to comb the lake’s shoreline and pick up trash. Church groups, Scout troops and individuals spend a day cleaning the shores, collecting thousands of pounds of trash, and then enjoy a big picnic together.
The next Lake Allatoona clean up event is scheduled for Sept. 28 and participants can register online at lakeallatoonaas soc.com/.