By Justin Boron
Whenever it rains, Nicole Curtis looks out her back window and sees a pristine lake transform into a mixture bowl of murky red clay and chemical runoff.
"With each storm, the lake gets brown and red," she said. "I don't know what it is, I just know it's gross."
Curtis' home sits on Lake Drake, a small body of water used as the centerpiece for a suburban neighborhood off Lake Jodeco Road. But after strong storms, it, like all of Clayton and Henry counties' watersheds, becomes a magnet for sediment erosion and runoff.
Curtis' repulsion stems from the pavement-oriented landscape of the south metro area. Heavy construction and development combine during storms to create a steady flow of pollution and sediment into the area's bodies of water, storm water officials have said.
As rapid development continues in south metro Atlanta, the need for storm water management has increased amid unfunded, federal mandates under the Clean Water Act.
Both Clayton and Henry County are grappling with the way to fund the expensive storm water programs.
In Clayton, cost for the storm water management could increase by almost $5 million to comply with the federal mandates, said Douglas Baughman, a senior environmental scientist for the Clayton County Water Authority (CCWA).
To come up with the extra funds, Baughman suggested a "utility fee" that would charge residents a flat rate of $3 per month and non-residential property $3 per every 2,000 feet of impervious area each month, he said.
The implementation cost for the revamped storm water program would cost up to $1.2 million, Baughman said.
The utility fees have caused public dissent in the past, he said.
"If we go forward with the utility fee, there is a great likelihood that it will be challenged," Baughman said.
In Henry County, the county commission has flirted with a similar utility fee but public disapproval of the fee has paralyzed efforts to bring in-line the storm water program.
"Right now, we're in a waiting period," said Jim Lueberring, Henry County's storm water manager.
The Henry County government and the Water and Sewage Authority are in discussions to determine which side should house the department, and thereby fund it.
Recent weather has illustrated the need for storm water programs, hydrology experts say.
Frances and Ivan dumped over 10 inches of rain in the Clayton and Henry County area, placing the storm water and treatment systems in each county under a heavy strain.
The deluge of rainfall has caused a number of problems in the area's environment and infrastructure.
Floods and runoff have conveyed pesticides, fertilizer, oil, and mud into the area's lakes and streams, Lueberring said.
Wayne Patterson, director of transportation and development, said 25 percent of Clayton County's infrastructure is not prepared for large storm events, leaving streams contaminated with oils and fecal matter.
Pollution is not the only long-term cause for concern related to the recent storms. The deluge of rainfall that gravity takes down to the streams whittles away at the banks, affecting the streams natural flow.
"With the increased volumes getting into channels and creeks, there has been a lot of bank erosion," said Jim Lueberring, the storm water manager for Henry County.
The mud and runoff that slides into watersheds during large storm events can cause near irreparable damage to the ecosystems it contains, he said.
"The clay becomes suspended, covering up plant life. It keeps the light from going through and affects photosynthesis," Lueberring said. "Fish also have a hard time surviving."
Storm Water Problems Increase Maintenance Cost
While storms play a clear role in the accrual of damage cost, their cost impact the area's water systems is less visible, but still significant, said Mike Thomas, an engineering department manager for the Clayton County Water Authority.
Storm water can infiltrate the area's water treatment systems, making it more difficult to treat the water for drinking, he said.
"During the recent storms, flows at the plants go up dramatically, and cost more because the water is dirtier," Thomas said.
Cost also piles up with the caked mud filling storm sewers and pipes, which requires extra-maintenance to clear them out, Patterson said.
The county is working to remedy problems with drains through SPLOST funding. But the SPLOST money and the $300,000 in the storm water department are insufficient to counteract the problem, he said.