Atlanta Voters Say ‘Yes’ to Tackling City Water Woes

(Photo: AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/John Spink)

Voters wait in line on March 1 (Super Tuesday), 2016, in Atlanta.

With the Flint water crisis looming large in the rearview mirror, Atlanta voters went to the polls on Super Tuesday and decided to continue to levy a 1 percent sales tax on themselves to fund water and sewer system projects. The measure passed by resounding margins in Atlanta-Fulton (74 percent to 26 percent) and Atlanta-DeKalb (81 percent to 19 percent).

The victory was an encouraging sign that in one major metropolitan area, voters are heeding some important lessons about the importance of continued infrastructure investments. Like many American cities, Atlanta has had to learn the hard way about the downside of years of neglect.

Originally instituted in 2004 and renewed in 2008 and 2012, the sales tax extension will raise about $750 million to pay for upgrades to the city’s water and sewer systems. The levy applies to just about every purchase made within the city limits, which helped the measure go down smoother since residents, businesses, and visitors alike pay the tax.

Supporters of the measure had a persuasive argument at their disposal. Atlanta has some of the highest combined monthly water and sewer rates in the United States. That left voters with a relatively simple choice: They could pay the penny tax rate or they could look forward to increases in water and sewer rates ranging from 25 to 30 percent.

The continuance of the tax was a critical issue for the southeastern city, which is one of the most at-risk areas for water disruption in the nation. Indeed, Atlanta’s problems have merited federal intervention, forcing city leaders to get serious about funding improvements.

Atlanta has two main sources of water: The Chattahoochee River has been quite overburdened by the increasing demands from the city. Atlanta’s growth combined with a level of water pollution that had been ignored by that powers-that-be for decades, led to two U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consent decrees in the late 1990s ordering improvements to the city’s sewer system.

Also contributing to Atlanta’s water woes are withdrawals from Lake Lanier, which flows into the Chattahoochee. The city’s water demands have strained the lake and have met fierce resistance from Florida and Alabama, which are none too pleased about having to share the water with parched communities in Georgia. The dispute has produced an epic regional battle that the federal courts, the Army Corps of Engineers, and various environmental groups continue to mediate.

With the newly approved revenues, Atlanta can move forward with a five-year, $1 billion plan of water-system upgrades. The monies will go toward additional stormwater infrastructure improvements and the construction of an emergency reservoir, a critical backstop for a city than almost ran out of drinking water during a 2007 drought.

Flint remains on environmental radar screens for obvious reasons. But Atlanta probably merits some fresh scrutiny, too, or at least some fast-tracked repairs. Several weeks before the vote, flooding sent sewage into a local park and a playground that children continued to use. Mary Norwood, an Atlanta City Council member, accused the city of finessing the problem to avoid further federal attention. And just two days before Super Tuesday, residents in another area watched a water-main break spew gallons of water into the streets, disrupting their service. Despite complaints, water got restored only after a television reporter called city officials to find out when they planned to deal with the problem. Clearly, Atlanta needs more than a sales tax to clean up its water works.

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