A CREEK RUNS THROUGH IT
Unless you go looking, you might not notice the numerous small creeks and streams meandering through the City of Atlanta. Many of these small waterways that once shaped the city’s hilly terrain now flow under its bridges, through pipes, behind buildings, and in other often unseen places. The same is true for Atlanta’s Proctor Creek. Sometimes docile, sometimes wild, Proctor Creek flows directly from downtown Atlanta to the Chattahoochee River, and its watershed is the only one of its size contained entirely within the city limits.
WHAT IS A “WATERSHED?”
A watershed, also called a basin, is the area of land that drains into a river, lake, or other body of water. Watersheds follow the simple principle that water flows downhill, and the boundaries of a watershed can be thought of as the ridgelines or high points across the landscape. Everything is part of a watershed, and smaller watersheds combine to form larger ones. In northwest Atlanta, 16 square miles drain into Proctor Creek to form its watershed. Numerous smaller tributaries flow into Proctor Creek and form branches that connect approximately 38 neighborhoods within the watershed. Around 52,000 people call the watershed home. In Proctor Creek’s watershed, rain and hose water flows off streets and rooftops, across lawns, and through the soil and either makes its way downhill to Proctor Creek or evaporates before it gets there. From there, the water in the creek flows northwest until it meets the Chattahoochee River and flows for another 404 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. In this way, all the land in the Proctor Creek watershed affects the creek itself and the plants, animals, and communities downstream.
Numerous important neighborhoods and landmarks dot the Proctor Creek watershed, and the area holds important historical significance for the City of Atlanta. The watershed’s Washington Park was the first park in Atlanta to be opened to African Americans in 1919. Booker T. Washington Highschool (est. 1924) was the first and only African-American public high school in the city until 1947. Paschal’s Restaurant, now in a new location, was once a gathering place for civil rights leaders and was considered the unofficial headquarters the movement. The Atlanta University Center, whose campuses are located in upper watershed, is home to the largest group of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the country, and its campuses and surrounding communities were a major focal point of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. The lengthy list of important leaders who have called the watershed home includes W.E.B. Dubois, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Maynard Jackson, and Julian Bond.
Proctor Creek and its tributaries create important habitat for wildlife. Fish, crayfish, and water insects live in the creek itself, along with frogs, snakes, and turtles. Beaver, raccoon, and deer tracks are easily found along its banks, and birds like blue herons, hawks, and owls nest above and fish in the creek.
A SHORT HISTORY – THE SEWER STORY
Early Years and Sewer Problems – Starting in the late 1800s, Atlanta launched a plan to use the city’s five main creeks (including Proctor) as trunk lines to carry wastewater away from the city and into rivers further downstream. Creeks and streams were encapsulated in pipes that carried both stormwater from rainstorms and sanitary sewage from households and businesses, discharging this wastewater into open creek beds further from the city center. By 1910, the city recognized some of the problems associated with combined sewer systems and ended the practice of combining new sewers, the same year that construction began on Atlanta’s first wastewater treatment plants located in Proctor, Peachtree, and Intrenchment Creeks. The new treatment plants reduced pollution flowing into Proctor Creek, but challenges related to the combined sewer system continued to the end of the 20th century. In a combined sewer system, stormwater from heavy rain often overloads treatment facilities, forcing them to release the combined storm and sanitary sewage directly into waterways at designated sites. These Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) events were once common in Proctor Creek and allowed raw sewage to flow directly into the creek during heavy rainstorms up until the 1990s.
Major Improvements – In 1994, two small treatment facilities, the North Avenue and Greensferry treatment facilities, were installed at the CSO discharge sites on Proctor Creek in an effort to filter and disinfect overflowing wastewater. Despite these upgrades, Atlanta’s sewer system was in a state of major disrepair, and in 1995, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (now Chattahoochee Riverkeeper), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the State of Georgia Environmental Protection Division filed and later won a lawsuit against the City of Atlanta for U.S. Clean Water Act violations. The resulting federal consent decree has driven Atlanta to invest nearly $2 billion in watershed protection and sewer upgrades, reducing the volume of sewer spills by more than 400 million gallons/year. Specific to Proctor Creek, under the consent decree the city removed 132 tons of trash from the creek, acquired land to protect over 74 acres of streamside greenspace and separated the Greensferry combined sewer area (in 2007), eliminating one of the watershed’s two remaining CSO sites. Beyond the significant improvements that have occurred to improve water quality in Proctor Creek over the last 20 years, there is still substantial work to do.
Proctor Creek and residents of the watershed still face many challenges. Among these:
- Proctor Creek is still classified as impaired and does not meet water quality standards for fecal coliform.
- Untreated sewage water enters the creek from two main sources. (1) Sanitary sewer connections remain in the formerly-combined Greensferry sewer area, but the combined sewage treatement facility at Greensferry was taken offline in 2007. This means that untreated sewage flows freely into Proctor Creek on a daily basis. (2) In addition, sewer overflows occur in other parts of the watershed either when stormwater overwhelms the remaining, North Avenue combined sewer area, or the sanitary sewer system becomes clogged by sanitary (baby) wipes and fats, oils, and grease (FOG)
- Impervious surface in the watershed can lead to high volumes of stormwater runoff from homes, streets and businesses, that: (1) causes flash flows and heavy erosion along creek banks, (2) transports trash and contaminants from roads, lawns, and industrial sites into the creek, and (3) can lead to flooding
conditions in lower-lying areas and homes
- Many neighborhoods in the watershed are faced with high vacancy rates, neglected properties, and illegal dumping of tires and other debris.
- Public infrastructure is often absent or in disrepair – potholes, roads without sidewalks, and missing street signs are common
- Many neighborhoods have insufficient access to public transportation, employment opportunities, healthy food options, and greenspace
Beyond water quality, watershed residents often list the following as priorities for strengthening their communities:
- Respect and inclusion in decision-making and planning
- Acknowledgement and preservation of the region’s cultural history
- Improved economic, employment, and education opportunities
- Addressing illegal dumping, code enforcement violations, and other blight
- Ensuring equitable development and access to services without displacement
- Improved walkability and access to public transportation, greenspace, and healthy food options
- Improved connection to downtown Atlanta
- Improved public safety
CALL TO ACTION
Today, many organizations are actively working in the watershed to improve the environment and the quality of life of residents. The people who live and work in the Proctor Creek watershed are essential for its health. Residents can help in many ways. Go find the creek or one of its tributaries. Take photos, look for wildlife, explore. Connect with West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, or the Adopt-a-Stream program to help collect water samples or organize a creek cleanup. Attend a meeting with the Proctor Creek Stewardship Council to meet local watershed activists. Form a Friends of the Park group and contact Park Pride to improve your neighborhood park. Reach out to one of the many other organizations and agencies involved in efforts within the watershed. Help keep leaves, trash, and debris out of the storm drain. Remind neighbors to dispose sanitary wipes and kitchen grease in the trash instead of down the drain. Install a rain barrel, plant a tree, and advocate for green infrastructure to help manage stormwater. Work with your NPU Chair, Councilperson, or community association to organize a neighborhood cleanup day. It’s your creek! Join the growing number of residents and organizations who are looking out for it!