In March, the United States Environmental Protection Agency recommended to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers that they deny Newton County's permit request to build a reservoir at Bear Creek.
Newton County Attorney Tommy Craig, who is leading the county's efforts to see the reservoir permitted, says this is par for the course for the EPA and that the agency traditionally recommends denial of all surface water reservoir projects.
Craig said the recommendation of denial was part and parcel of the series of negotiations, which will take place between the county and state and federal agencies during the reservoir's permitting process.
"We get these kinds of letters on every project," Craig said, adding that he was aware of only one large surface-water project in Paulding County where the EPA had not recommended denial. "We understand that that is the opening volley in the dialogue with the EPA. You're going to get letters from these agencies. That's just the way it is."
Just because the EPA has recommended denial does not mean that residents should think the reservoir will not become a reality Craig said.
The EPA's advice is considered in the permitting application but it is the Army Corp of Engineers that will rule on the matter Craig said.
"I have every reason to believe that this is a permitable project," Craig said. "I don't want the community to be unduly alarmed. It's business as usual and par for the course."
In a March 6 letter to Colonel Edward Kertis, Savannah District engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, James Giattina, director of the Water Management Division for Region 4 of the EPA, writes that the reservoir should be denied on account of an unsupported project purpose, a flawed alternatives assessment and a fragmented environmental mitigation plan.
Craig said the objections the EPA raised were nothing new and that other reservoir projects he had seen successfully permitted by the Army Corp of Engineers had received similar objections by the EPA including the Line Creek Reservoir in Fayette County and the Hickory Log Creek Reservoir in Cobb County.
In its recommendation of denial EPA said that the county had listed an average gallons per capita per day usage of 130 gallons though the county's current GCPD rate is approximately only 120 gallons. EPA questioned why, after a severe drought and recent state requirements to reduce water usage, the county would plan for more water usage in the future.
Craig said it has been a trend across the state that as areas become increasingly urbanized, like Newton County, water usage typically rises. Craig said he included the 130 GCPD rate because it is a figure common among developed Metro Atlanta areas.
"That's just a widely accepted number for planning in Georgia. We didn't invent that number," Craig said, adding that the Metropolitan North Georgia Water District average is actually much higher at 160 GCPD.
Craig said he also included the 130 GCPD rate to give the county a margin of safety. Craig said the GCPD includes industry users, which are typically huge consumers of water. In the event more industry comes to Newton County (as is hoped for the Stanton Springs Industrial Park), Craig said the county would experience a higher average per capita consumption of water.
"Part of the problem is the unforseeability of who's going to show up and want water," Craig said.
Alternative analysis questioned
In questioning the county's alternative analysis of possible other future water resources, the EPA listed an expansion of Lake Varner, buying Walton County's share of Lake Varner, withdrawing water from Lake Jackson and groundwater withdrawal as possibilities instead of building a reservoir at Bear Creek.
Craig quickly discounted all of those possibilities.
"We did a pretty good job of maximizing that site," said Craig of Lake Varner's original construction.
According to Craig, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has already issued the county the maximum water withdrawal permit for that point on the Alcovy River. Any more withdrawal would result in a loss of aquatic life before the river is replenished downstream he said.
With the scarcity of water, Craig, who is working with Walton County on the construction of their new reservoir at Hard Labor Creek, said he would be surprised if Walton County decided to sell its 25 percent share of Lake Varner to Newton County.
"No one [in Walton County] has ever mentioned to me any desire," Craig said. "With water as short as it is, I would be absolutely amazed if there was any interest in Walton County."
Craig added that with two thirds of Lake Varner's watershed, which replenishes the reservoir, in Walton County, the county had an incentive to keep current watershed protections in place. Should Walton County sell its part of Lake Varner, it would have less of an incentive to so vigorously protect the reservoir's watershed he said.
As for Lake Jackson, Craig said that sewage flows into the lake from three rivers (the South River, the Yellow River and the Alcovy River) make withdrawing water from the lake for drinking improbable due to water quality.
"EPD has historically taken a position against Lake Jackson for drinking," Craig said.
Furthermore Craig said Georgia Power, which built the lake in 1912 and owns it, has explicitly stated that it would not permit the withdrawal of water from the lake, which it uses to fuel a hydropower plant.
The physical geography of Newton County makes it a poor candidate for groundwater withdrawal, according to Craig. Any groundwater in the county is located beneath the granite bedrock that forms most of the county and would make drilling problematic. Additionally the groundwater would be located in small pockets of fissures.
"You don't have any way to measure how much is there," Craig said, adding that groundwater wells are prone to failing in times of drought. "It's just not feasible."
In the letter, EPA criticized the county's permit application for not adequately explaining why stream impacts from the reservoir had increased by 74 percent since the county first submitted an application to build the reservoir in 1999.
Scott Cole, an attorney with Tommy Craig's office, said at the time the first application was submitted, stream impacts were not given as much weight by the federal government and that the sub-meter GPS technology, which allows for much more detailed studies of stream impacts, was not then available. These two factors resulted in a much higher stream impact given in the county's 2007 application to the Army Corp of Engineers he said.
Craig said the county will take all the comments that it receives on its application, including the ones from the EPA, bundle them up and group them according to concerns.
"We look through all the criticisms and concerns and try to lump them together with ready explanations," Craig said.
Once the comment process has ended, Craig said the county will meet with the Army Corp of Engineers to determine what issues they think have been satisfactorily answered by the county and need more attention.