With half-joking talk about a “water Bill of Rights” and a “water Tea Party,” Sandy Springs officials are nearing a boiling point on frustrations with a leaky, aging, expensive water system owned and operated by the city of Atlanta.
Mayor Rusty Paul is leading the charge for his city to either cut a better deal with Atlanta, or sue for control of the water system. That stance, with many details yet to be worked out, got support from the City Council at its annual retreat Jan. 23 at Lost Corner Preserve park.
Even as officials dove into the water issue at the retreat table, a red-flagged email from the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management popped up on the laptop screen of city Communications Director Sharon Kraun. It was an alert about yet another Sandy Springs water leak, which affected 25 homes and three fire hydrants.
Paul called the water system’s condition “the greatest threat to our community,” saying a major failure is inevitable unless something changes.
“This is unacceptable … You’re talking about putting our lives at risk,” Paul said. “You’re talking about total collapse of a system that’s getting no maintenance, has had no maintenance for years, that’s deteriorating underground as we sit here, with the potential of a collapse to fail to serve large swaths of our population, and to sit idly by and allow that to happen.”
Watershed Management and city of Atlanta officials could not immediately be reached for comment after the retreat. Atlanta built out much of the local water system decades ago, long before Sandy Springs’ incorporation in 2005. Only a small part of the panhandle area gets water from other governments – either DeKalb or Gwinnett counties.
The basic complaint is that Sandy Springs residents apparently pay Atlanta a high premium rate for water, yet get a system that allegedly never gets routine maintenance and suffers frequent breakdowns that go unrepaired for weeks or months. There’s no doubt about lingering leaks all over town. The Reporter has documented several of them, mostly recently a hole in the sidewalk at 7360 Roswell Road, first reported by a resident in August, from which a stream of water was still pouring early this month. Watershed Management did not respond to questions about the leak.
Evidence for some of the other claims is still being pieced together by City Manager John McDonough and City Attorney Dan Lee. McDonough’s retreat presentation on what he found so far carried the title, “Water Independence.” Some councilmembers quibbled over the rebellious tone and whether the system really would end up separate – something Paul said is not necessarily a goal – and they traded some joking alternative slogans.
Councilmember Andy Bauman suggested “water equality” or the “Sandy Springs water Bill of Rights.”
“Can we have a water Tea Party?” asked a more revolutionary-minded Tibby DeJulio, while McDonough countered with “water reliability.”
The varied slogans reflect the varied attitudes – a hope that new Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms might be willing to work out a new deal, and a willingness to sue if she is not. In 2016, the cities nearly worked out a local maintenance agreement, but it mysteriously fell apart, reportedly on Atlanta’s side. Meanwhile, Lee is beginning legal evidence-gathering through an Open Records request for Watershed Management documents about rate-setting, internal auditing, capital improvements and similar subjects.
A long-simmering issue
If the situation does go to court, it wouldn’t be the first time. The long-simmering dissatisfaction predates the city, as did a 2002 lawsuit involving its legendary founder, the late former Mayor Eva Galambos. Officials say she was among the residents who sued following a 1999 study that said Atlanta could charge other cities higher rates for use of its water system.
Atlanta won that lawsuit, according to DeJulio, who said he was also involved in it and testified on the stand. He recalled some colorful claims about that trial that could not be immediately confirmed, including that the judge called off further testimony because he thought the jury would find it too complicated, and that Atlanta fired its first expert witness for recommending only a 5 percent premium charge.
A typical Sandy Springs single-family household is paying nearly 21 percent higher rates than Atlanta residents, McDonough calculates – and 151 percent higher than in cities on Fulton County’s system, and 173 percent higher than those on DeKalb’s system. Cobb County’s typical rate is “less than half,” he said.
A major failure in 2008 or 2009 caused by an accidental severing of a water main, said Paul and McDonough, showed Sandy Springs how disastrous a leak could be and also educated it about how the water system works. The main break left a large area of the city without water for over two days, nearly in crisis mode for such institutions as hospitals, they said.
The disaster also made them aware that the Hemphill treatment center in northwest Atlanta was not the city’s main water source, as long thought – only 25 percent of the water comes from there, McDonough said. The other 75 percent comes from the Tom Lowe Atlanta-Fulton County treatment plant in Johns Creek. Further research shows the city has about 328 miles of water pipes, and five storage tanks and eight pump stations to maintain water pressure – all infrastructure that a utility company could take over if the city severs ties with Atlanta.
Leaks and repair issues continue. The water system is by far the most complaint-generating utility to the city’s Call Center, McDonough reported, and it is trending up significantly. In 2015, there were 300 water service calls; in 2016, 497 calls; in 2017, 567 calls.
Fire hydrant repair problems have gotten a lot of attention, but are not the city’s biggest concern. Sinkholes, main breaks and similar failures are dangerous and also cost the city money for related road or sidewalk repairs. McDonough said that from July 2014 to April 2015, the city had 86 work orders for repairs related to water leaks.
“Why does this happen? Because this infrastructure was put in decades ago and was not maintained,” McDonough said. “It’s not getting better. It’s not getting better on its own.”
He said there is “no evidence of capital investment” in the Sandy Springs water system since 2008 and even some time before then. The city of Atlanta has not responded to request for such evidence and nothing is shown on available Watershed Management maps, he said.
City Councilmember John Paulson likened the issue to the disputes with Fulton County about a lack of local policing and infrastructure spending that led the city to incorporate.
“This is why we became a city,” Paulson said. “Sandy Springs was formed to right that wrong.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect approximate street address for a Roswell Road water leak as it appeared in some resident complaints.