Drill, baby, drill: Bellwood Quarry to become reservoir and park

A rendering of the future Westside Park.
A rendering of the future Westside Reservoir Park.

By Clare S. Richie

A disused granite quarry on the westside – world famous for its sheer walls and blue-tinted water as seen in “The Walking Dead,” “The Hunger Games” and “Stranger Things” – is on its way to becoming a critical amenity for Atlanta.

The city is converting the former Bellwood Quarry, located between Bankhead and West Midtown, into a 2.4 billion gallon reservoir. That conversion requires the drilling of a five-mile tunnel that will connect the reservoir with the Hemphill and Chattahoochee Water Treatment Plants, and the Chattahoochee River Intake. The area surrounding the reservoir will be developed into the city’s largest park and will connect to the Atlanta BeltLine.

“Our water supply is essential to our city’s good health – both our physical health and our economic health,” said Mayor Kasim Reed, noting that the tunnel drilling will be the largest conversion of a quarry to a raw water supply in the U.S.

“One day in Atlanta without water would cost $100 million” in economic impact on the City of Atlanta,” Reed said. “That’s why the city is proactively investing $300 million in one of the nation’s largest water supply projects to ensure its residents, businesses, and visitors have clean, safe drinking water.”

The Chattahoochee is one of the smallest river systems in the country to provide water supply to a major metropolitan city, according to the nonprofit environmental group Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. As the city continues to grow and face periodic droughts, the reservoir will contain needed reserves filled by the river during high flows.

The former granite quarry is world-famous after appearances in The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games.
The former granite quarry is world-famous after appearances in The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games.

Atlanta’s water supply conveyance will be just five miles from reservoir to city center, compared to other cities that have to access water from much farther away. In San Francisco, drinking water is piped in from Hetch Hetchy, which is more than 175 miles away.

“When this reservoir is done and filled by the end of 2018, it will provide a 30-day supply of drinking water for 1.2 million people served by our Department of Watershed,” Reed explained. The city’s current reserves are a three-day supply.

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, for one, is grateful to the city for its progressive thinking and investment in this unique project.

“Rather than building a new expensive structure that would destroy natural streams and ecosystems, Atlanta is opting to use what they already have,” Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth said.

That’s intentional and consistent with Atlanta’s current rebirth. “Like the Atlanta BeltLine, we are taking old and unused infrastructure and turning it into something useful and vital that will serve generations to come,” Reed said.

Work is underway to create the five-mile tunnel expected to be completed by the end of 2017. A 400-foot tunnel-boring machine (TBM) will spend the next year and half excavating a 12.5-foot diameter tunnel – 10-foot in diameter when lined with concrete – for the water to travel under Marietta Street and Howell Mill Road.

The city asked the public to help name the TBM. Out of 700 submissions, “Driller Mike,” submitted by Bryan Schroeder of the Georgia Conservancy, was selected. “Driller Mike” is a tribute to Michael Render (aka Killer Mike), a hip hop recording artist, actor and activist from Atlanta.

Rap star Killer Mike with the tunnel-boring machine named in his honor.
Rap star Killer Mike with the tunnel-boring machine named in his honor.

“My mom always said to me, Bryan – one day you will have the opportunity to name a $5 million drill after your favorite rapper. So choose carefully, “ Schroeder joked at the TBM naming ceremony.

Killer Mike, who grew up in Collier Heights not far from the quarry, accepted this unusual accolade with grace and humor.

“I know this is partly satirical, but I am honored. Clean water is a right. I am proud of the politicians and the people of Atlanta for being willing to invest in that right. Because this is an equal distribution of water, every neighborhood in Atlanta will have clean water,” Killer Mike said.

After the reservoir is complete, the city plans to develop the 300 acres around it into Atlanta’s largest park – Westside Reservoir Park.

“Initial efforts are underway to review the 2009 master plan to develop a park surrounding the quarry,” said Jewanna Gaither, Reed’s Deputy Press Secretary.

The 2009 master plan was driven by three factors; citywide parks programming, resident input, and reservoir requirements.

The tunnel-boring machine nicknamed Driller Mike.
The tunnel-boring machine nicknamed Driller Mike.

It’s goals included: “developing the park into a citywide destination with active and passive recreation; connecting to Grove Park and an expanded Maddox Park; maximizing the potential of the land with minimal intervention; enhancing the inherent natural and scenic resources and making them physically and/or visually accessible to public; and ensuring public safety.

To move forward with planning the park, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs will engage with key stakeholders including the Department of Watershed Management, the Department of Planning and Community Development through the Atlanta City Studio, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. and community leaders.

“We hope the park will feature hiking and biking trails, baseball fields, open meadows and an amphitheater,” Gaither shared.

“Reinvention of this quarry as a reservoir and as a surrounding park is one of the most creative land reclamation projects going on in the city of Atlanta and certainly in the southeast,” Reed said.

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