Atlanta leaves big chemical footprint

Analysis of water quality downstream of Atlanta shows that some pollutants from the city are still detectable more than 500 kilometers away.

Atlanta, one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the eastern United States, already sprawls across an area larger than the state of Delaware and is home to more than 3.8 million people. Upstream from Atlanta, the water in the Chattahoochee River is clean; downriver, the chemical signs of human habitation and industrial activity abound, says W. Berry Lyons, a hydrologist at Ohio State University in Columbus.

For example, each upstream liter of river water contains about 2.0 milligrams of nitrate ions, 2.5 mg of chloride ions, and 0.2 micrograms of dissolved copper. Downstream of the city, the concentrations of these substances skyrocket–especially during summer, when low river flow doesn’t dilute the city’s pollutants as well as it does in winter. Concentrations of nitrate and chloride can jump about 7-fold to 13.5 and 14.5 milligrams per liter, respectively, and the level of dissolved copper can leap nearly 20-fold to 3.5 micrograms per liter, says Lyons.

Particles of sediment can attract some of the city’s pollutants and remove them from the water, and other contaminants can disappear by reacting with oxygen-rich water that is formed when the river flows over rapids or dams.

Measurements downstream in Florida, however, show that even though the water in the river has flowed more than 500 kilometers from Atlanta and passed over nine dams, the chemical concentrations in the water are often as much as double those upstream of Atlanta, Lyons says.

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