Athens does not face the same water problems as Atlanta, officials say

Athens does not face the same water problems as Atlanta, officials say

In May, several water mains burst simultaneously in downtown and midtown Atlanta, forcing businesses to close and residents to boil water for nearly a week. Megan Thee Stallion had to cancel a concert until city workers made repairs. But Athens-Clarke County officials are confident a disaster of this magnitude is unlikely here.

“(ACC Public Utilities Department (PUD) staff) go above and beyond to make sure water quality is right, fire safety is ensured and all that,” said PUD Director Hollis Terry.

Atlanta authorities attributed the major breaks to aging infrastructure — some pipes downtown are 100 years old. In Athens, all of the old cast-iron pipes downtown, dating back to 1893, have been replaced as part of various road construction projects, such as the recent Clayton Street infrastructure rehabilitation, according to the ACC Public Utilities Department.

ACC is also in the process of replacing aging pipes and adding new ones in other parts of the county. Every five years, PUD updates its 20-year service plan. In 2020, the last update, Athens had just over 800 miles of water mains. About 100 miles have been added in the past four years. The 2020 service plan calls for spending $400 million on water and wastewater infrastructure, including $20 million to upgrade aging water mains.

“It’s the same everywhere (in the country), and often it has to do with age,” Terry says.

“We might replace a line every three months if it breaks,” adds Deputy Director Hugh Ogle. “It depends on the service history.”

But overall, even the old cast iron pipes were “in very good shape for what they are,” Ogle says. These older pipes tend to become brittle over time. The city now uses ductile iron pipes for the water mains.

In addition to replacing old pipes, many of which are now too narrow and brittle, PUD is also continually expanding the water system so that water can flow to customers via multiple routes. This way, even if a main line breaks, the water supply is maintained. “We have so much redundancy that a complete shutdown is unlikely,” Terry says.

In Athens, boil water warnings are rare. However, when a main line breaks, customers sometimes see the water coming out of the taps discolored. Minerals in the water build up in the pipes over time and are stirred up when the pressure drops, Ogle explains. The minerals are not harmful, however, he says.

With 200 employees and a 2025 operating and capital budget of nearly $60 million, PUD is one of the largest departments in ACC government. The department is funded primarily by ratepayers and receives no property tax revenue, but it does receive sales tax funds for some capital projects. However, those costs pale in comparison to the billions of dollars that Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has earmarked for repairs to Atlanta’s water system.

Dickens is not the first mayor to ask for federal help to address long-overdue water infrastructure projects. Jackson, MS’s water system nearly collapsed in 2022 after decades of neglect and disinvestment due to white flight and a shrinking tax base. A torrential downpour made it difficult to treat water from the Ross Barnett Reservoir, and the resulting slowdown of the city’s two aging wastewater treatment plants resulted in dangerously low water pressure for many of the city’s 150,000 residents.

The crisis in Flint, Michigan, was even worse. In a city with a decimated tax base similar to Jackson, an emergency manager appointed by the governor stopped buying water from Lake Huron in nearby Detroit and began getting it from the polluted Flint River to save money. The water caused an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease and corroded lead pipes, exposing thousands of children to dangerously high levels of lead.

“A comparison between us and Flint would be impossible,” Ogle says. For one thing, Athens’ raw water sources – the North Oconee River, the Middle Oconee River, Bear Creek Reservoir in Jackson County and, within the next decade, a quarry in East Athens that the county purchased in 2020 – are much cleaner to begin with. For another, PUD has conducted a survey for lead water pipes and found none, although it’s possible that some buildings on private property have lead pipes since PUD’s responsibility ends at the edge of the right-of-way.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires utilities to test water regularly and issue a water quality report each year. The most recent report, in 2023, found that Athens’ drinking water meets all federal standards.