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Column: Creeks offered pungent reminder of progress
July 10, 2013 02:17 PM | 2705 views | 0 0 comments | 79 79 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Thornton Kennedy
Thornton Kennedy
When my wife Lori and I took the children to Memorial Park in Buckhead late last year, I was struck by an aroma that hurled me back two decades to the heart of Buckhead.

Be warned: It was not pleasant.

La Fiesta Restaurant faced Peachtree Road just north of Biscayne Avenue. The front of the restaurant was a parking lot but it backed up to a stretch of Peachtree Creek, which runs parallel to Peachtree until crossing under it near Peachtree Hills.

A deck had been built off of the back of the Tex-Mex restaurant high above the banks of the creek. It was there the sickening sweet smell was at its strongest. After a rainstorm you couldn’t drink a margarita, much less eat a taco on account of the odor emanating from the creek.

This is not to say the pungent smell was only in this particular area. If you lived around Peachtree Battle or Nancy Creek, it permeated the air following a rainstorm. It was something most of us grew accustomed to but that I always questioned.

This was in the 1980s and early 1990s. That is important to this story because in 1995 the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper sued the city of Atlanta for failing to maintain its sewer system. When it rained, stormwater overwhelmed the combined sewers. As crazy as it sounds, our sewer and our stormwater runoff shared pipes that were entirely too small and too old for a growing community our size.

The result was a near-constant deluge of raw sewage flowing into our neighborhood creeks during substantial rains. The sewer lines generally follow the creeks and rivers as a matter of convenience. So the repugnant smell was us, in a manner of speaking.

The ultimate result of the lawsuit is an ongoing $3 billion investment in system upgrades, which should be completed next year. I served as the news editor of this paper for much of this back and forth and therefore was fairly aware of it. That is why I was curious about the strong odor in Memorial Park, which Peachtree Creeks runs through.

It turns out we are not out of the woods. The good news is there are resources at our disposal and volunteers who are constantly monitoring to ensure if there is a problem the city is aware and steps are taken to restore the water quality.

I talked to Jason Ulseth, the technical programs director with the riverkeeper, which keeps detailed reports on the health of our creeks and streams on its website,

He said there are still spills into Peachtree Creek, which could be caused by backed up sewer lines, resulting from things like grease being poured down drains. During heavy rains there can be major events, which is likely what we encountered at Memorial Park. It is critical to the health of the water system that residents report odd smells or dumping or anything remotely questionable, Ulseth said. It’s the relatively new “see something, say something” methodology.

Thankfully these events have been substantially reduced to the point where they stand out, whereas when I was a child, it was just a fact of life.

Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is a sixth-generation Atlantan, and can be reached at

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