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A critical physical geography of infrastructure-mediated flows: movements of wastewater, stormwater, and race in Atlanta’s South River watershed

Authors: Richard Milligan*, Georgia State University, Jeremy Diem, Georgia State University, Ellis Adams, Georgia State University, Luke Pangle, Georgia State University
Topics: Coupled Human and Natural Systems, Human-Environment Geography, Water Resources and Hydrology
Keywords: wastewater, urban hydrology, political ecology, critical physical geography, environmental justice
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Since the late 1800s, Atlanta, perched on the eastern subcontinental divide, has struggled to provide freshwater to its rapidly growing population and failed to deal with wastewater. A critical hydrology approach to the historical geography of Atlanta’s water infrastructure demonstrates couplings of race with the consequences of inadequate capacities to manage water flows in the urban environment. This paper employs a critical physical geography approach to better characterize infrastructure-mediated flows in Atlanta’s South River watershed, with its headwaters in the southeastern portion of the city. South River initially was an important freshwater source for the growing city until becoming too polluted with sewage. As the city transitioned to water supply from the Chattahoochee River, the South River watershed became a conduit for wastewater from urbanizing areas on the Atlantic side of the subcontinental divide. Combined sewage systems in the city routinely pulsed untreated wastewater through South River into the 21st century, and today DeKalb County struggles to meet conditions of a federal consent decree to reduce sanitary sewer overflows into the watershed. Patterns of white flight and Black suburbanization beginning in the 1960s have created a correspondence between today’s color line in metropolitan Atlanta and the watershed boundary. We couple (1) a hydrological analysis of alterations to South River flows mediated by infrastructure, employing USGS gages and rainfall data with (2) a qualitative analysis of environmental injustices of sewage flows in majority Black suburbs of DeKalb County, building on participatory research with South River Watershed Alliance conducted since 2012.

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