The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA) has reopened the river from Powers Island to all downstream sections of the park that were affected by E. coli contamination, but it remains closed upstream from that point to the Chattahoochee Nature Center.

“Updated water quality monitoring has identified safe bacteria counts in this section that meet water recreation criteria used by the Environmental Protection Agency,” CRNRA Acting Superintendent Beth Wheeler announced in a news release this afternoon.

The park closed sections of the river last week due to a public health risk after untreated or partially treated wastewater was flowing into the river from the Big Creek Water Reclamation Facility.

The river remains closed from Chattahoochee Nature Center to Powers Island. The sections of the river below Powers Island have bacterial levels below the criteria recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. Conditions remain subject to change, Wheeler said.

The park and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper will continue to monitor and test water quality through the BacteriALERT partnership. She said the park will assess impacts to wildlife, vegetation, and aquatic resources.

Work continues by Fulton County Public Works at the Big Creek facility to ensure all wastewater meets permitting requirements of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Wheeler said.

She advised visitors to the park to remember to wear a life vest and check the flow rate, weather forecast and bacteria levels at

The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper had reported on Saturday afternoon that tests show a significant drop in E. coli bacterial levels in the 15 miles of the Chattahoochee River that remain closed.

“Our tests are showing significant reductions in E. coli bacteria levels in the affected sections of the river, indicating that treatment processes at the Fulton County plant are improving,” the Riverkeeper reported on Facebook on July 8.

Residents can check the park’s website and social media for updates.  

E. coli bacteria levels in the Chattahoochee River remained elevated on July 7 due to the continued discharge of sewage from Fulton County’s Big Creek Water Reclamation Facility.

The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper said on its Facebook page that it continues to monitor the bacteria levels by collecting and testing water samples. The nonprofit organization is coordinating with Fulton County Public Works, the CRNRA, affected outfitters, and state and local agencies about the ongoing discharge.

Water quality testing showed E. coli bacteria levels almost 300 times higher than the recommended limits by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the spill area.

“These levels pose serious risks to public health, especially for vulnerable populations such as young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. The CRNRA has posted signage at access points along the affected area indicating the closures due to elevated bacteria levels,” the Riverkeeper said on its website.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released more water than usual from Buford Dam to help dilute the sewage contamination, according to the Riverkeeper.

Sections of the river upstream of the Chattahoochee Nature Center and south of the CRNRA as far downstream as West Point Lake should not be affected by the contamination resulting from the discharge, the Riverkeeper said.

The impact of the discharge on wildlife is being monitored by the Riverkeeper. As of July 6, no indications of a fish kill have been seen because of the discharge. It is safe to fish sections of the river upstream of the Chattahoochee Nature Center and downstream of West Point Lake.

The plant met two of seven parameters required under its Georgia Environmental Protection Division permit for compliance, Mark Baucom, a spokesperson for Fulton County said in a release on July 6.

Forty tanker truck loads of healthy microorganisms were transferred to the plant from the Johns Creek Environmental Campus, he said. Evidence of the slow return to compliance was also seen with five of the seven biological basins used in treating sewage showing signs of treatment.

“The plant remains operational with the wastewater receiving screening to remove inorganic material, partial biological treatment, and filtration and disinfection of the effluent before returning back to the river. The biological process in the treatment facility is improving,” he said.

Advanced disinfection efforts continue and with the biological improvements that have been seen, E. coli numbers should show improvements in the coming days, he said.

The parameters back in compliance were total suspended solids (TSS) and phosphorous, Baucom said. The county expects all parameters to return to compliance, he said.

This situation is not impacting the safety of the drinking water of Fulton County or the surrounding communities, according to the county.

A violation of the Clean Water Act

The ongoing sewage spill has been classified as a major violation of the Clean Water Act that will result in enforcement action, according to the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

The protection and advocacy organization discovered a major sewage spill in the river through its weekly water sampling from the river, Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth said.

Samples taken from more than 200 locations early the week of June 25 indicated a major contamination source somewhere within the CRNRA. They tracked the source of that contamination to the outfall of the Big Creek wastewater treatment plant on June 29.

“We notified Fulton County that there was a major sewer spill taking place there at the outfall, which they denied and the response to us was that the plan was operating 100 percent correctly and there were no issues,” he said.

Fulton County subsequently found out the plant was malfunctioning.

 “It was not treating any of the sewage coming in and was pouring raw sewage into the Chattahoochee River every single day and they were not aware of the issue,” Ulseth said.

The organization said on June 30 that it had been tracking this spill for more than a week and was coordinating with the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA) and Fulton County. On that date, a six-mile stretch of the river was closed, which was later expanded farther downstream.

“We’re keeping the river closed until we get water quality data that supports reopening. And we’re working closely with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper to coordinate and monitor and test the water,” CRNRA Acting Superintendent Beth Wheeler said.

She said that they rely on that partnership to make sure that they can make a good call and open the river as soon as possible.

The sewage spill is ongoing because the design of the plant uses a biological process for much of the treatment. Bacteria treats the sewage, but all the plant’s bacteria had died. Fulton County is bringing bacteria from other plants to get it restarted, but it cannot be 100 percent operational until all the bacteria have regrown and are established at the plant, which he said takes days to happen.

The county characterized it as a plant malfunction, Ulseth said.

“But it is absolutely a sewer sewage spill because the plant treats over 20 million gallons of raw sewage every day and is not able to treat that sewage at this point,” he said.

“So this spill is a violation of the Clean Water Act. It is a major spill under Georgia law and so they are in violation. We do anticipate enforcement action coming from the state following the spill,” he said.

Impacts are being seen downstream with a decrease in oxygen levels. All the nutrients and organic material within the raw sewage get eaten by bacteria in the river. In that process the dissolved oxygen gets sucked up and replaced with carbon dioxide, he said. Chattahoochee Riverkeeper has crews going to different locations on the river to assess this and any effects it has on wildlife.

Park units, 30 miles of river remain open

Wheeler said that despite the closure of the river, all its park units remain open as are 30 miles of river north of the spill.

“We closed 15 miles of river starting at Chattahoochee Nature Center, all downstream sections, which are closer to Atlanta and very popular. But we did keep 30 miles of river open, everything north of this spill, which is from Buford Dam all the way down to the Azalea Park access point in Roswell,” Wheeler said.

She said National Park Service staff have been encouraging visitors to discover or explore a new part of the river given the water quality in the southern unit.

“We’ve been putting signage at access points, boat ramps, and in some parking lots, and trailheads, but stressing that all of the park units are open,” she said.

The signage warns of the health risk to make sure visitors understand that the river is closed, and no one should get into the water at any point south of the Chattahoochee Nature Center, Wheeler said.

All picnic areas and more than 64 miles of hiking trails throughout the park remain safe and open for visitors, she said. Hewlett Lodge, the CRNRA visitors’ center at Island Ford also is open and air-conditioned for a cool place to visit.

Ulseth said the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization that’s dedicated to protecting the Chattahoochee River from Helen all the way down to Florida to secure enough clean water for generations.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.