Above the Waterline: Neighbors who don’t ignore problems

Ansley Park resident Paula Heer stands beside the stream that flows through Winn Park.
Ansley Park resident Paula Heer stands beside the stream that flows through Winn Park.

By Sally Bethea

Winn Park in Atlanta’s Ansley Park neighborhood has been a part of my life for more than 30 years. It’s where my sons learned to ride bikes, sled and play baseball, where we buried Gerbie the gerbil and where our family dog stalked fish in the ponds.

Lately I’ve spent a lot of time in the stream that flows through Winn Park, thanks to my vigilant neighbor Paula Heer.

This unnamed stream – which receives water from storm drains in addition to its natural flow – is contained in an underground culvert for much of the park. It emerges from darkness to flow a few hundred yards through the park, then under The Prado and into The Dell Park on its way to Clear Creek, Peachtree Creek and ultimately the Chattahoochee River.

A residential real estate agent, Paula moved to Ansley Park from New York City in 1999. She says that she immediately fell in love with the neighborhood: “In two minutes, I can walk to a park, really a paradise with mature trees, ponds and an urban stream. Two minutes in the other direction and I’m in the midst of a brilliant city.”

In twice-daily dog walks, Paula keeps an eye on Winn Park and the stream where a bullfrog named Herman used to live and neighborhood children like to play, often running in the water through the pipe under The Prado.

This summer, Paula told me that the stream in the park was a whitish color and smelled: a classic description of sewage contamination. But, the water needed to be tested to verify the pollution.

After I retired from Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (CRK), I became a volunteer stream monitor, collecting weekly samples in Tanyard and Clear Creeks. Now, I had an opportunity to test water closer to home in Winn Park, as part of CRK’s Neighborhood Water Watch Program.

The E. coli bacteria level in my first water sample, analyzed in CRK’s lab using federal protocols, was literally off the charts. Our data, taken over several weeks, convinced Atlanta’s Watershed Department that there was a serious public health problem in Winn Park. They worked over the Fourth of July weekend to investigate and then attempt to fix the problem.

Atlanta’s Watershed Department employees repair a broken sewer line.
Atlanta’s Watershed Department employees repair a broken sewer line.

The initial culprit was identified as a gas company that had inadvertently punctured city sewer lines in several places when it installed a gas line. The holes allowed untreated sewage to flow into an adjacent storm drain that led directly to the stream in the park.

The city repaired the holes and the bacteria level in the creek improved somewhat, but clearly there were more pollution sources to be found. The city’s sewer sleuths continued their work with CRK and the Ansley Park Civic Association urging them on.

The next discovery: an old sewer line with structural defects that needed to be replaced to keep untreated sewage from several residences out of the stream. This work is in process and water samples should eventually yield a much cleaner result.

Every neighborhood needs to have people like Paula Heer – citizens who don’t look away. They notice problems that affect them and their neighbors and they do something about them. Their vigilance helps make our communities better, safer places to live.

To become part of CRK’s Neighborhood Water Watch Program, see chattahoochee.org or contact Mike Meyer at mmeyer@chattahoochee.org.

Bethea2Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (chattahoochee.org), a nonprofit environmental organization whose mission is to protect and restore the drinking water supply for nearly four million people.

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