Mayor Shirley Franklin's effort to upgrade Atlanta's stormwater and wastewater infrastructure has earned her the moniker “The Sewer Mayor.” Photo: Susan J. Ross

When mayor Shirley Franklin took office in 2002, she had some tough challenges—not the least of which was Atlanta's severely deteriorated sewer system.

“Atlanta had negotiated two consent decrees mandating an overhaul of the city's sanitary and combined sewer systems,” she said. “However, there was no plan in place to meet the requirements of those consent decrees. The city's water and sewer rates had remained static for years, and we didn't know exactly where all our pipes were. EPA said the best description it could come up with for the city's understanding of its own sewer system was ‘incompetent.'”

Franklin stepped up to the plate with the Clean Water Atlanta program, establishing the goal of creating the cleanest urban streams and rivers in the country within a 10-year timeframe. It calls for a massive overhaul of the city's water and wastewater infrastructure, including two new combined sewer overflow treatment plants, separation of 27% of the city's remaining combined sewers, construction of tunnels to store wastewater and stormwater, and extensive improvements to Atlanta's water reclamation centers and pump stations. The first phase of the ambitious plan ended in October, within budget and ahead of schedule; subsequent phases stretch through 2014.

Obtaining funding for the program, especially in the face of larger budget woes, wasn't easy. Franklin proposed a 1% sales tax increase, which voters overwhelmingly approved in July 2004. In addition, the city raised property taxes, issued bonds, and received low-interest, long-term state loans. She also reduced her staff and her own salary.

According to Franklin, this is the largest program of its kind to proceed with so little federal financial help. “We have repeatedly asked EPA to rule that the cost of the program constitutes a ‘high burden' on our customers, especially since about a quarter of our customers fall below the federal poverty line,” she said. “Thus far, we have been unsuccessful in our requests.”

Earlier this year, Franklin received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for her innovative approach in tackling her city's budget and sewer situation, and Time magazine recently named Franklin one of the Five Best Big-City Mayors—impressive honors for someone who had never planned on taking on such a high-profile role.