The scent of water: Searching for hidden springs in downtown Atlanta

Can we find and repurpose the downtown springs and creeks that have languished for generations under layers of asphalt?

Repurposing downtown Atlanta springs
Hannah Palmer peers into a storm drain in search of one of the city’s buried springs.

Photograph by Growl

A funny thing happened last September when I set out to find the springs in the Gulch: I ran into the city’s watershed protection director. I was standing on Forsyth Street, gazing down on the train tracks below, when Susan Rutherford, from the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management, rode by on her bike. She was looking for the springs, too.

What brought us there was Emergence, a temporary public art project by Rachel Parish that attempted to trace downtown’s springs and mark them with monuments. Proctor, Tanyard, Clear, and Intrenchment creeks all begin downtown and flow out from the city like spokes—west, north, east, and south. The creeks predate the railroads and highways that have nearly buried them, but their exact sources remain a mystery.

“Do you know how the artist came up with these locations?” Rutherford asked. “We don’t even know where they are.” (By “we,” she meant the DWM.) Rutherford suggested I ask Caroline Smith, a former colleague. “She’s a water nerd like you.” This was a compliment based on the many times she’s heard me talk about the river piped under the airport—the Flint—and about how studying it has led me to search for hidden creeks all over Atlanta.

I loved that a public art project had us so-called experts meandering around downtown on a blue Saturday sniffing for water. There’s something alluring about the idea of water flowing under layers of crumbly asphalt, graffitied bridges, and railroad tracks. All creeks have to start somewhere.

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I recruited some fellow water nerds and asked Jeffrey Morrison, architect and author of Atlanta Underground: History from Below, if we could join one of his walking tours of the Gulch. “Spoiler alert,” he warned. “I don’t think we’re going to see any water.”

As we descended a stairwell to Lower Wall Street, an unhoused woman in a bathrobe waited for us to pass. Part parking garage, part abandoned subway station, the original Wall Street felt like the forlorn basement of Atlanta, concealed under a viaduct that stole its name. We walked for two hours and—spoiler—we found water. As Morrison was sharing railroad history, I kept drifting off to storm drains to look for my reflection in a distant puddle. As we passed through the dim underground, our banter interrupted people trying to sleep.

Back in the daylight, Wall Street emerged as a back alley along the railyard. I longed for scattered showers to rinse away the grit and litter in the postapocalyptic landscape. What little plant life flourished here still looked parched—magenta stems of pokeweed springing out of a jumble of railroad ties, yellow butterweed tangled in the fences.

Later, deep in the parking decks behind Mercedes-Benz Stadium, we heard water, loud as a faucet. There was a Hawks game underway, and State Farm Arena vibrated with machinery and bass and cheerleaders. An invisible freight train echoed through the vaultlike chamber formed by parking decks and the outer walls of the Georgia World Congress Center. Still, we could hear a trickle in a storm drain, near the source of Proctor Creek.

Repurposing downtown Atlanta springs
Palmer searches for water in the Gulch.

Photograph by Growl

Days later, I shared this with Caroline Smith. A water resources engineer for Dewberry, she left DWM in 2017, but not before she found, tested, and documented a few springs in Atlanta’s underground network of sewers. “It’s kind of my pet project,” she said. “Finding water that’s considered a nuisance and looking for ways to reuse it.”

During her time with the city, Smith not only heard the water behind Mercedes-Benz Stadium but popped the manhole cover and tested it for contaminants (indicating runoff) and chlorine (treated water). Based on location and flow, this had to be the springs at the source of Proctor Creek.

Smith told me about some recent developments that integrated natural springs into their plans: NCR’s headquarters, for example, reused rainwater and “nuisance groundwater” to irrigate their landscaping and flush toilets. “I’m always looking for places where we can meet multiple needs,” she explained—reduce flooding, save money, make the city more resilient. “I want future developers to know about the water and think of it as a free resource.”

That approach is a massive improvement over the standard practice of directing groundwater into the sewer system. But shouldn’t springs be daylighted, protected, and celebrated?

“Spring water is ‘waters of the state,’” argued Bill Eisenhauer, one of the founders of Metro Atlanta Urban Watershed Institute. He’s an engineer, economic feasibility analyst, and activist who’s been working for decades to solve Atlanta’s flooding and sewer problems. “Waters of the state,” including rivers, creeks, and springs, are a public resource protected under Georgia law. In theory, springs shouldn’t just be pumped into the HVAC of a private development but shared with the community.

“There’s a lot of water over there,” he explained. In addition to several perennial springs on Spring Street (hence the name), 30 million gallons of stormwater pour off the Gulch in a major storm. It’s the stormwater that floods west side neighborhoods because it can’t reach a stream. (Specifically, he added, “it goes into old, undersized combined sewers and blows off manhole covers, [which erupt with] untreated sewage and stormwater.”)

Eisenhauer and a team led by urban designer Ryan Gravel are proposing a stormwater capture and conveyance system (aka a stream) flowing from the Five Points MARTA station, across the railroad tracks and Northside Drive, and into a series of parks designed to manage water. The idea is to mimic nature with a manmade creek that directs stormwater and spring water to Proctor Creek.

“A babbling brook with a trail next to it, going all the way down to the Chattahoochee,” said Eisenhauer. “Can you imagine?”

Water has value. Real monetary value, in terms of the rates charged by DWM. Then, there’s the placemaking value, that ineffable quality that distinguishes one generic mixed-used development from another. For me, though, there’s something more that compels me to find it. I want to peel back the layers of development, before the parking decks and railroads, before the Civil War, before Marthasville and Thrasherville, before the land was stolen from the Muscogee and Cherokee people. Back to some ancient bedrock of Atlanta. I want this place to make sense.

Repurposing downtown Atlanta springs

The human nose is incredibly sensitive to water. We can detect geosimin, the chemical compound released by soil after a storm, at a level of five parts per trillion. Our bodies have evolved to locate water.

As developers generate futuristic renderings of megaprojects downtown, will they recognize water’s value? Can we reveal the springs in a way that is green and free and reorients us to the natural resources we have repressed for generations?

Rachel Parish, the artist who spent months getting to know downtown’s springs through maps, visits, and research, developed a sense of the water flowing underground, just out of reach. Asked how developers should treat these springheads in the future, Parish was open-minded. Anything that “lets that water sing its own song,” she said.

“While we were doing the installations, the main thing that people would ask us for was water,” she sighed. “You could feel the lack of water. There is a large public that lives on the periphery of the space without access to bathrooms or drinking water.”

While I was dreaming of lush parks and urban springhouses, the need for water was even more fundamental: Downtown is thirsty.

Back to “Who is Downtown Atlanta For?”

This article appears in our January 2023 issue.