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Bear Creek Reservoir back on track
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After several stops and starts, it appears that the Bear Creek Reservoir project is back on.

On Jan. 9 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District issued a Joint Public Notice announcing that it had received an application from the Newton County Board of Commissioners seeking an environmental permit for construction of the reservoir.

The site of the Bear Creek Reservoir would be located immediately downstream of Henderson Mill Road Bridge over Bear Creek in the southeastern end of the county.

According to the Joint Public Notice, once completed the reservoir would encompass 1,242 acres.

The impact area is 36 acres of wetland and 24 miles of stream. The project would also require the installation of 6,000 feet of pipeline for pumping water from the Alcovy River.

The dam for the reservoir would be 1,450 feet long, 62 feet high and 350 feet wide at the base. At full pool elevation the reservoir would supply approximately 28 million gallons per day.

Impacts of the project on infrastructure would include the flooding of 10 residences and portions of Macedonia Road, Gaithers Road, Benton Road, Old Post Road and Henderson Mill Road. According to the Joint Public Notice, while the other roads would be dead-ended at the reservoir it would be necessary to relocate Henderson Mill Road over the top of the dam.

Scott Cole, an attorney for the county who is working on the project, said the county had purchased the land of all but one of the 10 affected residences.

The Bear Creek Reservoir is intended to serve, along with Lake Varner and City Pond, a projected county population of 375,000 by 2050. Unlike Lake Varner, which is 25 percent owned by Walton County, Bear Creek Reservoir would serve only Newton County residents.

Cole said cost estimates for the project are not yet available but that the project would likely cost in the "tens of millions."

Cole said over 99 percent of the land needed for the reservoir has already been acquired by the county. While the construction cost of the reservoir will have risen greatly since the project was first considered, Cole said the county had obtained great cost savings by moving to acquire the land when it did.

The Corp of Engineers' decision whether to issue a Section 404 permit in accordance with the federal Clean Water Act will be based on an evaluation of the cumulative impacts the reservoir will have on the public as well as the environment.

The Corp will consider conservation, economics, wetlands, fish and wildlife values, flood hazards, land use, shoreline erosion, water quality and considerations of property ownership among other things in its consideration of the application.

The Corp is currently soliciting comments from the public, federal, state and local agencies. Any comments received will be weighted by the Corp in its decision whether to issue, modify, condition or deny a permit for the reservoir.

Anyone wishing to comment on the county's application should submit concerns in writing to the Commander, US Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, Attention: Regulatory Branch, Post Office Box 889, Savannah, Georgia 31402-0889. Comments must be posted by Feb. 9. A March public information meeting is expected to be held.

At the Jan. 15 BOC meeting County Attorney Tommy Craig told the board that the permitting process would likely be a long one.

Negotiating the red tape

The history of the Bear Creek Reservoir project is a long and winding one. The project was originally conceived by former County Chairman Davis Morgan. According to Cole, at the time that Lake Varner was permitted in the early 1990s it was determined that the next best possible location for a reservoir would be at Bear Creek.

Recognizing that the county's projected population growth would require another reliable source of public water, the county ordered an evaluation of specifically where the dam site would be located and began purchasing land for the reservoir, including 220 acres or land surrounding Gaithers Plantation.

Following the acquisition of the majority of land needed for the reservoir, in 2000 the board submitted an application for a Section 404 permit to the Corp of Engineers. What would follow was an eight-year period of the board negotiating its way through a tangled bureaucracy filled with failed intergovernmental agreements, new population projections and new requirements from the Corp.

According to Cole, during the initial 30-day public notice period, the Corp relocated its office to Morrow Ga. Cole said the Corp was concerned that it may not have received all public comments as a result of the move and so asked the county to withdraw its application and resubmit it.

While the county was resubmitting its application, Cole said the Corp put a halt to all future reservoir projects in the state as the result of two unrelated reservoir projects near Canton, Ga. claming the same future population as justification for new reservoirs.

"The federal agencies were understandably concerned that the state was using the same population twice and put a halt to further reservoir projects until it could come up with a methodology for determining need," Cole said.

Once the Corp had determined a new methodology, they re-examined the Bear Creek reservoir application and found that the county had used population projections based on data compiled before the 2000 census results were available.

Cole said the Corp asked the county to re-write the application to include the 2000 census population projections. At that time Cole said Jasper County approached the BOC to ask if it could participate in the project.

Cole said Newton County spent 18 months negotiating with Jasper County before an intergovernmental agreement ultimately fell through for "political reasons."

At that time the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center had issued new population projections of its own as had the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District so the state asked the county to reconcile its own projections with those of the other two agencies Cole said.

In addition Cole said the Corp was now giving increased attention to the impacts caused by reservoirs to free flowing streams whereas in the past they had chiefly focused on the impact to wetlands.

"People are accustomed to mitigate to the wetlands so new mitigations had to be developed and approved," Cole said.

After receiving a new letter from the state certifying that there was a need for the reservoir and finalizing its own stream flow mitigation plan for the project, the county re-submitted for the third time its application for a Section 404 permit to the Corp in November.