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Posted: November 4, 2012 1:00 a.m.

Bear Creek Reservoir: Now or later?

The eventual need for the Bear Creek Reservoir seems to be a foregone conclusion, but the county's need for more water may not materialize as soon as once predicted. Newton County recently was promised a $21 million state loan for Bear Creek Reservoir and the board of commissioners is now considering a resolution that will obligate taxpayers to finance the project and repay the loan. It appears that county officials are planning to proceed with construction within the next couple of years. However, a comprehensive analysis done as part of the 2011 Middle Ocmulgee Regional Water Plan indicated that Bear Creek may not be needed before 2040. While this date may be too far in the future, there are substantial reasons to question the current timetable and cost of this project.

Forecasts of future municipal water demand are driven largely by growth of the human population, the amount of water each person uses (per capita use) and the percent of the county population that will be dependent on public water as opposed to private wells. Unfortunately, the population projections the county and its consultants are relying on to forecast water demand were developed in the 2003-2006 period when Newton County was one of the fastest growing counties in the nation. Original population projections for 2050 range between 361,000-400,000 and these numbers were used to predict future water demand.

However, the county's rate of population growth has dropped dramatically in the last few years due to poor economic conditions. From 2000 to 2007, Newton County grew about 5,000 persons per year but since 2007, it has added an average of only about 1,000 per year. Obviously, slower growth means that there will be considerably fewer people in Newton County by 2050 and that future water demand will not be as great as once thought.

Newton County has projected future water demand based on higher per person water use and a higher percent of the population being served by public water sources than did the regional water plan and the county's 2050 Plan. While such technicalities may seem unimportant, the reality is that minor changes in such factors, along with lower population levels, can make a dramatic change in the amount of water needed in the future. For example, using the county's figures yields a 2050 demand of approximately 47 million gallons per day (mgd); whereas, the values used by the regional plan multiplied by a slightly lower population of 311,000 in 2050 would reduce demand to 33 mgd - a substantial difference that would push the need for Bear Creek Reservoir further into the future.

Bear Creek proponents suggest that excess water supply from Bear Creek could be sold to either Jasper or Walton counties as an additional revenue source for Newton County. That seems unlikely because the regional water plans show that Walton County's demand will be more than met by the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir now in progress. Jasper County's unmet demand will be only 1.3 mgd by 2020 according to the regional water plan. Additionally, Jasper County officials have shown no recent interest in obtaining water from Bear Creek Reservoir. Industrial developments like Baxter International will use some additional water, but not enough to make Bear Creek an immediate priority.

The real cost of the reservoir is another concern. The current estimated cost of Bear Creek Reservoir is reported to be $63 million, so the state loan of $21 million loan at best will cover only a portion of the cost. However, the initial cost estimates for water supply reservoirs are typically under actual costs by millions of dollars. Nearby examples include the Glades Farm Reservoir in Hall County, the Hickory Log Creek Project in Cherokee County and Walton County's Hard Labor Creek Project. All three projects are now projected to cost from three to eight times their initial estimates. The 1,400 acre Hard Labor Creek Reservoir was estimated to cost $41 million in 2002. Ten years later, its projected cost has risen to $350 million. Can we really believe that the 1,240 acre Bear Creek Reservoir will cost only 20 percent as much as the 1,400 acre Hard Labor Creek Reservoir? A study done for the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority estimated that real cost for a project the size of Bear Creek will be at least $112 million.

How will Newton County pay for Bear Creek Reservoir if there are no customers to buy its water for years to come?

Unfortunately, it may be taxpayers or current water customers who have to pay for the lake even though they may not be using any of its water. To avoid a scenario that easily could result in water rate increases, tax increases or a diversion of funds from other county projects, the board of commissioners should make public all costs incurred to-date related to the Bear Creek Reservoir and publish a comprehensive plan as to how the project will be financed from start to finish. Hopefully, that will be done before the board votes on the pending resolution that financially obligates county taxpayers and water customers.

The questions and concerns expressed herein are not meant to challenge the eventual need for Bear Creek Reservoir, but to ask when it should be built, how much will it cost and how that cost will be paid. The board of commissioners should objectively reassess the timetable for this project by using current population data, accurate water supply and demand figures and realistic cost estimates. The future demand projections should also take into account conservation practices and water loss reduction measures because of their cost effectiveness in reducing demand. If these steps are taken, the Bear Creek project will be another positive step for the county. If not, it could become another costly government mistake that citizens have to pay for.

Larry McSwain retired from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Resource Division after 32 years and was a member of the Middle Ocmulgee Regional Water Council, which studied the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir, from 2009 to 2011. He is currently an environmental consultant.

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