The house that Driller Mike built

Behind the scenes at Atlanta’s fancy new waterworks

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Shirley Clarke Franklin Pumping Station

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Driller Mike is long gone—on to his next job, like a salesman traveling from town to town—but his works may be looked upon at Westside Park. Driller Mike was, of course, the nickname of the 400-foot, $11.6 million machine used to bore a five-mile tunnel deep beneath the streets of Atlanta. When the project finished in 2020, water began to flow through the tunnel from the Chattahoochee River, filling the 2.4-billion-gallon quarry at the park’s center.

In Mike’s place: silence. Or at least that was the situation on a recent afternoon at the Shirley Clarke Franklin Pumping Station, the stately building—built out of granite mined from the bottom of the quarry—that houses the pumps that move the water around, from the river and onward to the Hemphill Water Treatment Plant. The joint was deserted, immaculate. Sunlight streamed through towering, arched windows.

Quinton Fletcher, deputy commissioner in the City’s Office of Water Treatment and Reclamation, drops in a couple days a week, he said, and somebody from the City comes by every two hours. The facility can be minded remotely, though there is a little routine maintenance: Of the seven pumps here, three are turned on twice a week to churn water in the reservoir to prevent it from becoming stagnant. That procedure, Fletcher said, “basically just pulls the water from the bottom of the quarry and recirculates it to the top.” (It does get a bit noisy when the machines are on, he said.) A floating device in the middle of the reservoir takes readings of water pH, turbidity, and other factors, though a human operator visits weekly to test samples, in part to make sure the monitoring equipment is functioning properly.

Quinton Fletcher
Quinton Fletcher inside the pumping station

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Shirley Clarke Franklin Pumping Station

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Among other reasons, the regular pumping is why the reservoir is closed for recreation, a point pressed on me by every person I spoke with at the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management. No swimming!

“If the pump were to start up, it would suck you in and . . . un-alive you? Is that a better way of putting it?” said Scheree Rawles, the department’s director of communications. “We get a lot of questions about folks going kayaking, diving: no, no no. That’s not permitted, but they can just take in all the wonderful scenery,” said department commissioner Mikita Browning. “Another fun fact about that reservoir is that from top of pool all the way down to the bottom is 350 feet. It’s very deep. That’s the reason why we would never see anyone again.”

The City purchased the old quarry from Vulcan Materials in 2006; construction began in 2015 and ended in 2020. At a ceremony in December 2022, both the facility and the reservoir (formerly known as Bellwood quarry) were named in honor of former Atlanta mayor Franklin, who got the ball rolling on this project and is known as the “sewer mayor” for her attention to the nitty-gritty of Atlanta infrastructure.

Shirley Clarke Franklin Pumping Station

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Shirley Clarke Franklin Pumping Station

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

“She saw the future,” said Browning. When the City bought the old quarry, it stemmed from the recognition that, if we lost access to drinking water, either by drought or some other disaster, we’d have only three days’ supply in the reserve—a worry that became frighteningly real a year after the purchase, when a drought caused water levels to plummet in Lake Lanier, the primary source of the city’s drinking water. This isn’t just an Atlanta problem: Globally, cities are facing the double pinch of more people moving in (increasing demand) and more frequent droughts linked to hotter temperatures (decreasing supply).

The quarry has increased Atlanta’s three-day reserves to at least 30 days, and up to 90 with some conservation measures in place. “When you look at what’s going on out West, where they’ve had some significant drought challenges, and you look at what we have here—that reservoir serves a purpose of allowing the ability to get through a drought should we end up in that condition,” Browning said. All this infrastructure means Atlanta, compared to other cities, is pretty well-prepared for what’s coming—whatever might be coming. Now, in relative silence, we wait.

And we find another place to go swimming.

This article appears in our April 2023 issue.

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