Above the Waterline: What’s the matter with Atlanta’s pipes?

A century-old water pipe had to be replaced in Midtown after a massive water main break on May 31, 2024 dried up most of central Atlanta’s taps. (Courtesy Atlanta Watershed)

When Shirley Franklin became mayor of Atlanta in 2002, she inherited a massive infrastructure crisis: an aging, dysfunctional sewer system in chronic violation of clean water laws. Federal consent decrees, signed in the late 1990s, mandated that the city stop polluting the Chattahoochee River by specific deadlines. That successful outcome would require enormous expenditures and resolute, unflagging leadership.

Negligence and mismanagement of the sewer system by city administrations from the 1970s through the 1990s—and the failure of state and federal agencies to enforce clean water laws—had led to the dire situation. Unsafe levels of E. coli bacteria in the river and its tributaries threatened public health. Following storms, toilet paper and condoms decorated trees along waterways. Human waste rotted in stagnant pools, even in city parks. Sewer cave-ins occurred regularly. In 1993, two people died when a 70-year-old stormwater pipe collapsed beneath a hotel parking lot.

Franklin has said that dealing with the city’s decrepit sewer system was the hardest thing she did during her eight years in office. It was certainly my own biggest challenge as director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. Our organization’s successful lawsuit against the city, filed in 1995 and supported by the U.S. EPA, initiated the megaproject: repairing and upgrading pre-1920 combined storm and sewer pipes, sewage treatment plants, and nearly 2,000 miles of sanitary sewer lines.

Clean Water Atlanta Program

Shortly after taking office, Franklin asked Wayne Clough, then-president of Georgia Tech, to convene a task force of independent water experts. Their charge: evaluate the sewer cleanup plan drafted by the previous city administration and recommend alternatives to meet decree deadlines and public expectations. The task force took a deep dive into Atlanta’s wastewater system and, importantly, assessed its drinking water and stormwater systems as well. All the pipes and facilities built to deliver clean water and manage wastewater were in disrepair or inadequate for the city’s booming growth—threatening Atlanta’s economy and public health.

Franklin responded by doing something remarkable. With the city’s long-term economic prosperity and environmental health in mind, she was determined to tackle both crumbling systems: the legally mandated sewer overhaul and the failing drinking water system. Her Clean Water Atlanta Program, established in 2004, committed the city to fixing all the infrastructure. Refusing to take the politically expedient course (doing the minimum required), she and her team focused on root causes, including operations, maintenance, and training.

RELATED NEWS: WABE/PBS will show an extended version of the documentary “Saving The Chattahoochee” on July 2 at 8 p.m. with newly added footage of Sally Bethea interviewing current Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth.

Water and sewer rates were tripled. A new municipal option sales tax (M.O.S.T.) passed the state legislature to provide additional revenue. These funds continue to flow into the city today. More than $2 billion has been spent on sewers with impressive improvements in cleaner, safer waterways, documented by Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. During Franklin’s time in office, she says that $1 billion was also spent on the drinking water system.

Changing of the Guard

When Franklin left office in 2010, the Clean Water Atlanta Program continued to be touted as the city’s response to its infrastructure woes by subsequent administrations led by Kasim Reed, Keisha Lance Bottoms, and Andre Dickens. 

The consent decrees and their deadlines have kept the sewer work largely on track for the past twenty years, as mayors and city council members have come and gone. No similar forcing factor—a federal court mandate—has been in place to ensure needed upgrades to the drinking water system. Repair and replacement of those pipes and facilities took a back seat to the sewer work.

Over the years, city audits and investigations revealed serious problems within the Department of Watershed Management (DWM), which is charged with managing Atlanta’s water and sewer systems. It failed to collect hundreds of millions of dollars due from customers. Thousands of water meters disappeared, along with other equipment. A department commissioner hired by Reed in 2011, is serving time in federal prison for accepting bribes, and the most recent commissioner was just fired by Dickens in May.

More recently, DWM has hemorrhaged employees, as competent and long-serving DWM staff left for better jobs with more capable leadership. Notably, the department’s environmental compliance manager, an essential position, left more than a year ago and has not been replaced. Money for projects has not been the problem, say knowledgeable observers. They point to extremely poor leadership, mismanagement, low morale, and the loss of key personnel. 

There are few municipal services more important than the delivery of safe, clean water to homes and businesses and the proper disposal of wastewater. However, that obvious imperative does not appear to have motivated mayors or city council members to do what Franklin did—dig deep, find, and fix the root causes of the problems, no matter how difficult or expensive. That is, until early June, when water main breaks left much of downtown Atlanta without drinking water for six days.


The recent water crisis should be the catalyst that renews Franklin’s vision to prioritize all of the city’s water infrastructure. A physical and operational assessment of the water, sewer, and stormwater systems—conducted transparently—is needed. The operational review should examine the current capacity and leadership within the Department of Watershed Management, as well as the role of city contractors, to inform its overhaul.

Since last fall, the city’s largest sewage treatment plant—R.M. Clayton—has malfunctioned regularly, polluting the Chattahoochee downstream of Atlanta, according to Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. A state report found “shocking” conditions at the facility; the federal judge overseeing the consent decrees may need to review the situation.

Mayor Dickens has taken some good first steps by convening a panel chaired by Shirley Franklin to review water system failures and by engaging a federal agency for technical support. Time will tell if the mayor and city council are determined to get out their shovels and dig deep into the water, sewer, and stormwater crises, or buy a box of band-aids instead.

READ MORE: See all of Rough Draft’s coverage of Atlanta’s water crisis at this link.

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