Atlanta’s water department is denying Sandy Springs’ recent criticisms of its service, saying claims of lack of maintenance are “not true” and that the system is “sound.”

As a bonus, the Department of Watershed Management provided a photo of a 2011 letter Sandy Springs City Manager John McDonough sent to former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, in which McDonough praised one of the department’s repair efforts. But the department did not deny that those repairs can take months – the root criticism – due to weather, repair coordination and increased leaks across the system.

“Overall, Atlanta’s water system is sound and is operated and maintained in accordance with all applicable regulations and standards,” said DWM spokesperson Rukiya Campbell in a written statement. “It is not in danger of collapse or failure.”

That was a direct rebuttal of Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul’s Jan. 23 comment that his city is under threat of “total collapse of a system that’s getting no maintenance, has had no maintenance for years, that’s deteriorating underground as we sit here…”

A 2011 letter from Sandy Springs City Manager John McDonough to former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed praising a water repair effort relating to a fire insurance rating improvement. The letter was part of the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management’s response to Sandy Springs officials’ recent criticisms about the service.

Paul was speaking at the annual City Council retreat, where officials resolved to spend 2018 seeking better maintenance of the Atlanta-owned and –operated water system, or sue to take control of it.

Atlanta built out much of the local water system decades ago, long before Sandy Springs’ incorporation in 2005. The basic complaint is that Sandy Springs residents pay Atlanta a high premium rate for water, yet get a system suffers frequent breakdowns that go unrepaired for weeks or months. At the retreat, McDonough gave a presentation titled, “Water Independence,” and some councilmembers half-joked about such slogans as a “water Bill of Rights” and a “water Tea Party.”

Campbell, the DWM spokesperson, said the system is in good shape. She said that some of its “most serious issues” are due to private contractors accidentally damaging pipes – including a major 2007 water main break that Paul had cited as the type of crisis he fears.

At the retreat, McDonough blamed regular local leaks on aging infrastructure and said there is “no evidence of capital investment” in the Sandy Springs system since at least 2008.

“No, that is not true,” replied Campbell. “Since 2005 to date, there have been 383 water main installations in the Sandy Springs service area. These installations are maintenance activities which help prevent potential water main emergencies.”

She said that Atlanta has “invested” about $3 million a year since 2008 in a Johns Creek treatment plant that provides Sandy Springs with water. And the local network is part of an upgrade plan as well, she said.

“In addition, Sandy Springs is included in the capital improvement project plans, which includes installing two additional 2-million-gallon storage tanks and upgrading pipelines along Roswell Road and Peachtree-Dunwoody Road,” Campbell said. “Atlanta remains committed to providing capital improvements to the water system with short and long-term plans extending to 2060 and will continue to provide quality water service for all of its customers, including Sandy Springs.”

Sandy Springs and the rest of the system benefits from “innovative smart technology” to assess and prioritize maintenance problems, she said.

“Overall, capital projects are evaluated and prioritized according to the needs of the system as a whole, and not just according to a single municipality,” Campbell said.

Water pours from a hole in the sidewalk, flanked by cones from an Atlanta Department of Watershed Management facility, at 7360 Roswell Road in early January. (John Ruch)

However, there are still a lot of leaks. Campbell provided some local numbers that show the scale of the problems locally, but also how they are just a small part of Atlanta’s sprawling water system.

From 2014 through 2017, Campbell said, DWM created 1,525 leak work orders in Sandy Springs. That was 15.8 percent of all DWM’s leak work orders for that period. During the same period, DWM completed 1,392 Sandy Springs leak repairs.

The median time to complete a repair was 32 days. Campbell says that is “comparable to all areas within the city’s service area.” The goal is to repair leaks within 45 days, but that can be longer due to the “increased number of water main breaks and leaks across the system” and such delays as weather and coordinating service interruptions. DWM has generally improved repair times and committed additional resources to repairs, and also “cleared a backlog of work from 2001,” Campbell said.

Campbell encouraged Sandy Springs residents to report water leaks directly to the city of Atlanta at its customer service number: 404-546-0311.

In 2016, the two cities came close to signing a legal agreement that would have allowed Sandy Springs to make local water system repairs in exchange for a reimbursement from Atlanta. That agreement failed mysteriously on the Atlanta side. Campbell declined to identify specifically who rejected the deal or why, but emphasized the city’s ownership. “It’s Atlanta’s system,” she said.

Sandy Springs and other jurisdictions that use Atlanta’s water system indeed pay a higher rate, which is legally permitted to cover “increased costs and risks,” Campbell said. She could not immediately specify how that rate is currently calculated. Campbell confirmed that it is about 21 percent higher than regular Atlanta rates.

Another Sandy Springs concern is where that money goes. Sandy Springs gets sewer service separately through Fulton County, and some officials complain that residents could be essentially double-paying if the higher water rates also help to pay for the city of Atlanta’s sewer system issues. Some officials also repeat a rumor, apparently going back to Sandy Springs’ late founding mayor, Eva Galambos, that Atlanta directs some of the money to paying off pension debt.

Campbell said that water revenues do not go outside the DWM to other uses, such as pensions, “which would be illegal.” However, the water and sewer revenues are indeed combined and can be spent on either part of the system, Campbell said, though the water and sewer billing rates are separately set to specifically to cover the operational costs of each.

Update: This story has been updated with further comment from the Department of Watershed Management about repair times, the water rates, and the proposed Sandy Springs maintenance agreement.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.