Lake lovers: State failed in monitoring

LAWRENCEVILLE - Lake Lanier advocates say they are not surprised the popular reservoir is being placed on a federal list of polluted waterways.

They say it should have happened sooner.

"As far as I'm concerned it should have been listed in 2004," said Darcie Holcomb, a conservation director at Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in Gainesville.

On Wednesday the state announced it is having the lake classified as "impaired" because it periodically contains too much chlorophyll - an indicator of algae that, if left unchecked, can cause environmental damage and kill fish.

The amount in Lake Lanier barely exceeds pollution limits imposed by the state and does not pose a danger to human health, state environmental officials say.

Holcomb and other lake advocates do not dispute that, but they say the state Environmental Protection Division has failed to properly monitor the impoundment for chlorophyll in the past.

In 2000, the state set water quality standards for Lake Lanier and installed testing equipment at five locations, after which it began logging data each summer.

Some readings showed elevated chlorophyll levels, some did not, but the state never established criteria for analyzing the data as a whole to determine if the chlorophyll standards had been violated, Holcomb said.

In other words, the state was making up the rules as it went along, she said.

Not until Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper pressed the issue with federal regulators earlier this year did the state establish a method for deciding when a lake becomes impaired because of chlorophyll, Holcomb said.

She said that happened only after a meeting in January between riverkeeper, state EPD and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

"Somewhere along the line they should have gone back and taken a look at this and taken action to head this off," Holcomb said. "Instead they sit there and let it go until it was brought to their attention that they have a problem."

Linda McGregor, chief of state EPD's Watershed Protection Branch, said EPD has correctly tracked chlorophyll in Lake Lanier. She also said the state did not err when Lanier was left off the federal list in 2004.

"It is a complex natural system," McGregor said of the lake. "It is not a simple issue.

"What we see is the data goes up and down, and some of the ups are above the (chlorophyll) standards. We don't have enough data to fully understand what this means."

However remote, there is still a possibility Lake Lanier could make the 2004 list. A report the state sent EPA two years ago has not been approved because the agency has questions about how it was devised.

For the past two years EPA has been reviewing the way Georgia determines if waterways are impaired by chlorophyll. It has taken so long because it is a "complex issue and hard to assess," said Andrew Bartlett, an EPA official responsible for monitoring water quality in the Southeast.

"We entered into a dialogue with EPD, really to further understand how they were going to assess the lakes and what the data said," Bartlett said.

Pollutants that cause high chlorophyll levels are among the hardest to track and analyze, he said.

McGregor said state EPD and federal EPA have been in discussions since 2004 about what "was and wasn't on the list." She referred further questions to EPA.

After Lanier joins the list of impaired waterways, the state will have 13 years to devise a plan for reducing the amount of phosphorous being washed and piped into the lake at Gwinnett County's northern tip.

Treated sewage is responsible for 10 percent of the problem, McGregor said, while fertilizer, feces and other pollutants washed into the lake by rainfall contributes the rest.

A wastewater discharge permit Gwinnett is getting to support its population growth will not be affected, but other counties and cities around the lake will not be so fortunate.

Gainesville, which wants a discharge permit, will probably have to install more expensive sewage equipment capable of cleansing its wastewater more thoroughly.

For Holcomb, the issue is simple.

"Somewhere in there mistakes were made," she said.