Insufficient sidewalks and bicycle facilities were not Atlanta’s only shortcomings as far as the health of its residents was concerned. Its rivers and streams were polluted. Toilet paper used to festoon trees along Peachtree Creek and its tributaries because of the way Atlanta’s overwhelmed sewage system developed. The basic layout of the city’s water treatment and disposal system dates from 1893. Water is pumped out of the Chattahoochee River just upstream from where Peachtree Creek flows into the river. It is treated at the Waterworks site off Howell Mill Road on the city’s west side, then distributed to homes and businesses. Wastewater is collected in sewer pipes that frequently run parallel to streams, because gravity flow makes those routes the path of least resistance. The water is treated and returned to the Chattahoochee just downstream of the Peachtree tributary.
Because Atlanta is so hilly, its boundaries actually include five distinct watersheds. Since their headwaters are all relatively close by, they don’t generate sufficient water for the city, and the granite underlay makes underground sourcing unlikely, which is why the broad Chattahoochee is an essential water source.
The largest watershed is Peachtree Creek, fed by the North Fork, South Fork and Clear, Tanyard, and Nancy Creeks. Their story is told in fascinating detail by David Kaufman, in his 2007 book, Peachtree Creek: A Natural and Unnatural History of Atlanta’s Watershed. An avid canoeist from childhood, Kaufman became fascinated with the polluted waters that had once served as pristine waterways for the Creek Indians and sources of power for the gristmills and sawmills of early Atlanta. When Kaufman canoed the creeks, he encountered junk, sewer lines, and water so foul that he feared tipping over into it.
During the 20th century, the city was covered with streets, parking lots, and buildings, so that the rain hitting these impervious surfaces flowed more swiftly down drains. Summer thunderstorms routinely blew sewage out of manhole covers and into the creeks. As the sewage pipes aged and cracked, they also leaked into the waterways they followed.
By 1925, the upper reaches of Tanyard Creek were buried and renamed the Orme Street trunk sewer. In 1971, part of it collapsed near Midtown’s 14th Street, washing away two buildings in the middle of the night. The city simply filled the hole with dirt and rebuilt. Then in June 1993, a storm dumped 3.6 inches of rain in 40 minutes, and the trunk sewer failed under a Marriott Courtyard hotel parking lot on Techwood Drive, killing two people, who were “siphoned into the sewer like ants down a bathtub drain,” as David Kaufman put it. The city finally overhauled that sewer line for $10 million.
The Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a watchdog environmental organization, sued the city over its dysfunctional water system and won. In a 1998 consent decree, the city agreed to a massive infrastructure overhaul, begun under Mayor Shirley Franklin, although the final compliance deadline has been delayed until 2027. In most parts of the system, sanitary and storm sewers were separated. In others, giant tunnels were cut into bedrock to hold combined sewage/rainwater overflow. And as we have seen, the cheaper, better solution was to build attractive detention ponds, as was done in the Historic Fourth Ward Park.