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Georgia River Points Way to Clean Water

Judge orders EPA to adopt new ways to make waters fishable, swimmable, drinkable

The Chattahoochee River warbles through northern Georgia, its graceful bends forming homes for heron and aquatic playgrounds for city folk.

It's one of metro Atlanta's natural gems. Until it rains.

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Then, rainwater rushes across roads, parking lots, yards, and farmland, carrying with it soil and fertilizers. Sewers spill over into creeks and streams, and it all ends up in the Chattahoochee. The outdoor treasure becomes a regional travesty with the highest levels of some pollutants in the Southeast.

Until now, these myriad sources sullied the waterway but drew little or no response from state and federal water regulators. A landmark court settlement this month, however, has put the Chattahoochee at the center of a national shift in the the Environmental Protection Agency's cleanup priorities and the way states should monitor water quality.

Watch your water bill

It's a change that could affect American farmers, developers, and anyone who drives a car or fertilizes his lawn. In Georgia, state and federal money will pay for the bulk of new pollution monitoring, but eventually the expense of purifying lakes and rivers will trickle down to the water bills of state residents.

"Georgia's will be seen as the keystone case that set it all in motion," says Alex Levinson, environmental law program director for the Sierra Club, headquartered in San Francisco.

In 23 other states, from Delaware to Idaho, similar lawsuits have been filed to force regulators to adopt new, more-effective ways of measuring water quality.

The settlement in Georgia resulted from a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and four other environmental groups against the federal EPA. In it, the groups charged that the EPA had neglected its mandate, laid out in the Clean Water Act, to ensure that Georgia's rivers are swimmable, fishable, and drinkable. The judge in the case used strong language to condemn the EPA for shirking its responsibilities and virtually ignoring a Clean Water Act provision that requires all states to identify which of their waterways are polluted and draft plans for cleaning them up.

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Before the Georgia case, much of the EPA's water-cleanup efforts focused on regulating polluters rather than protecting bodies of water, says Geoffrey Grubbs, director of the assessment and watershed protection division at EPA headquarters in Washington. The agency's resources were largely directed toward issuing discharge permits for factories and measuring the amount of pollution they emitted, for instance, rather than testing the water and asking how much pollution it could endure.

"Frankly, we had not paid enough attention to this other part of the Clean Water Act," says Mr. Grubbs. In the past year, the EPA has begun to change its focus, and this month issued a third memo urging state regulators to concentrate on their cleanup plans.

Environmentalists herald the Georgia plan as a national model for how to return rivers and streams to their once-pristine state. But their enthusiasm for the plan, and the path it would take the country on, isn't shared by all.

For many industries, the expanded regulations may mean that permits they hold, allowing them to discharge some level of treated waste into bodies of water, could become invalid. Farmers may see environmental regulation for the first time, requiring them to reduce the amount of soil and animal waste that runs off their property in the rain or change their grazing practices. And for cities, the plan could stymie new growth.

"You're talking about a potentially far-reaching change in the way of doing business in the future," says Jeff Larson, a manager at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, the state agency under fire for not providing close enough supervision of Georgia's waters. "The questions for industry will be: How can I expand? What am I to do? This will also domino back to the cities. Roads will have to be curtailed because of runoff."

The final settlement, reached earlier this month, requires the state environmental agency to test each of Georgia's waterways to determine the highest level of pollution it can withstand before damage occurs.

After the testing, the state must set pollution limits, and then begin cleaning up the endangered rivers and streams. All the limits must be set and much of the cleanup begun by 2005 - a strenuous deadline, considering that Georgia and other states have claimed it would take them from 50 to 100 years to complete this type of testing. If the state agency does not comply by the eight-year deadline, the courts have threatened to dissolve the agency and have the federal EPA act in its place.

The Georgia settlement also mandates a cutting-edge method for testing. Rather than break a river into several segments, and test for one pollutant at a time - say conducting all zinc tests at once and then testing for phosphates at a later date - Georgia's Environmental Protection Division now must look at an entire river system and test the whole river system for all pollutant categories at once.

It's a method that will produce more accurate results, because the water will be tested for all contaminants under the same conditions, such as water flow and temperature, says Douglas Haines, a lawyer for the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest, who represents the Sierra Club and other environmental groups in the case. It's also a way of testing that lends itself more easily to a comprehensive cleanup plan. Instead of having reams of separate tests for separate stretches of the Chattahoochee River, for example, there will be one document of the entire river's health.

"You can't separate the river into tiny one-mile pieces," says Mr. Haines. "You have to look at it as a living being. You have to understand it as that in putting together control strategies. It just makes a lot more sense."

Neither environmentalists nor government officials claim this latest step in water restoration will be easy, though.

By taking the focus off polluters who require permits and by training more attention on the quality of the body of water, the new approach will spotlight polluters who don't require permits . These so-called nonpoint-source polluters include farmers, developers, and just about anyone that uses chemicals to tend their lawn.

More friends - or foes?

"If it impacts water, it's part of the problem," says Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates in Portland, Ore. "Looking at nonpoint-source pollution is going to mean a huge change in the status quo and it's going to make a whole lot of political enemies."

But the EPA's Grubbs says, "It's a terrific development for clean water. The environmental community really understood the importance of this in moving toward clean water and now we've got religion too, so to speak."

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