Clean Water: Pay Now or Later

While March 6 is stacking up as a hot political contest for the Republican presidential primary in Georgia, it is also the date Atlanta voters (mostly registered Democrats) will decide how they will pay the remaining billion- plus dollars needed to complete the city’s almost decade-old Clean Water Program.

For too many years the city’s water and sewer systems were underfunded, water and sewer rates didn’t cover the full operational costs and funded few infrastructure upgrades. The issues came to a head when the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeepers, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) went to court and forced a federal consent decree that required the city to invest nearly $2 billion in separating its sewers, sanitary sewer upgrades and other sewer operations and maintenance upgrades.

Infrastructure experts urged the city to include long neglected water upgrades too in the Clean Water Program. The combined projected bill in 2004 was nearly $4 billion making the investment one of the largest investments of any Georgia city in water infrastructure. When considered in the context of 50 years of underinvestment, the cost is worth the investment. However, the infrastructure cost hit the pocketbooks of every Atlanta water customer, large and small.

The Municipal Option Sales Tax (MOST) gives Atlanta voters the chance to share the cost with those who visit and work in the city. Every four years the voters must approve the MOST or face the loss of over $100 million annually in sales tax revenue that the MOST yields and the prospect of rolling the loss revenue into the water/sewer rates. While the March 6 Republican presidential primary holds little interest to Democrats, it will be up to Republicans to pass the tax. On Super Tuesday 2008 over 70% of Atlanta voters approved the four-year tax beating the vote projections and defying the typical differences between Democrats and Republicans on tax issues.

With all the talk about the transportation sales tax referendum this summer being a hard sell, voters are often willing to pay taxes for issues they view as necessary. For instance, the education SPLOST passed last fall by wide margins in Fulton and Dekalb counties. Even though water is a global issue the need for water/sewer investments in Atlanta has seen limited attention in the media and among elected leaders. It is important that Atlanta voters not forget that clean water isn’t free, that clean water is essential for life, that water systems deteriorate when not properly maintained, that 10 years of investment is not enough to correct five decades of disinvestment. Water and access to clean water, preservation of water aquifers and water conservation are hot topics among environmentalists and for a few years Atlanta voters have cared about the subject as well. Atlanta is not alone in addressing this problem.

See environmental advocate Laura Seydel’s speech at a TEDxWomen conference to get a global perspective. March 6 will tell whether we take our water stewardship seriously or not.


  1. Burroughston Broch says:
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