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Opponents of Bear Creek project seek use of alternate plan
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Despite Newton County's determination to construct the Bear Creek Reservoir, some opponents of the plan question why the county doesn't consider pumping water from the South River instead, though that project is not without its own shortfalls.

Supporters of the South River plan propose to construct a water filtration plant on the South Ocumulgee River at Snapping Shoals Creek on property owned by Thomas Brothers Hydro, Inc., which would withdraw 30 million gallons of water a day.

Thomas Brothers co-owner Hoke Thomas said an application for a 404 environmental permit from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has been submitted. Thomas said a Georgia Environmental Protection Division water withdrawal application for 30 MGD has been completed. According to Thomas, the only thing the project is lacking is a customer base.

"The only thing we don't have is the customers," Thomas said. "We've got to identify the customers, the need that's all we lack."

According to Thomas, Jasper County has already committed itself to purchasing 5 MGD of the 30 MGD. Thomas said he hopes Newton County will agree to purchase the remaining 25 MGD.

Newton County currently has a water supply of 21.25 MGD. The proposed Bear Creek Reservoir would supply an additional 28 MGD. The county predicts its population will grow to 361,500 by 2050 with a water need of 47 MGD.

While the Bear Creek Reservoir would bring the county's total water supply to 49.25, the Thomas Brothers plant would fall .75MGD short of meeting the county's projected need.

While Thomas said he is expecting to receive a 404 permit soon, Billy Burdwell, chief of affairs for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineer's Savannah District said a permit for the Thomas Brothers plant is still pending. Burdwell said he did not know when the Corp would make a decision whether to issue the project a permit.

Burdwell said he did not have an answer to the question of whether the Corp would issue 404 permits to both the Bear Creek Reservoir and the Thomas Brothers plant, projects that seek to serve the same population.

Kevin Farrell, assistant branch chief for EPD's Watershed Protection Branch said EPD would not issue water withdrawal permits for both the Bear Creek Reservoir and Thomas Brothers if both projects were aimed at serving the same population.

"If there's going to be more people, then there needs to be more reservoirs," Farrell said when asked to give EPD's current position on reservoirs.

What's the cost?

Perhaps the biggest challenge opponents raise to the Bear Creek Reservoir, is that a final cost estimate of the project is not yet available, though most involved with the project agree that the cost will likely be in the hundreds of millions.

Thomas speculated the final cost for the reservoir, even accounting for the fact that land for the project has already been purchased, would be $750 million. That figure includes 4.5 percent interest on the debt taken out to build the reservoir he said.

"I challenge [the county] to come in on that," Thomas said.

Thomas said to build a water filtration plant on the South River would cost $100 million. Thomas said he already has an agreement with General Electric for the company to pay the construction costs of the plant. Thomas said GE would own the plant for 20 years. After that time Thomas said Newton County and Jasper County would own the plant, which they would have paid for gradually over the years through the cost of buying water from GE.

"The only thing [the counties] have to do is pay back the construction costs," Thomas said. "It saves taxpayers money."

Whether GE is truly on board to participate in the Thomas Brothers plant remains uncertain. GE spokesman Peter O'Toole said there was no consensus at the company as to whether there was an agreement on participation in the project.

"We're not aware of any such project so I can't comment on anything speculative," O'Toole said.

Sam M. Hay III, well known locally for his continued opposition to the county's reservoir plans and a strong advocate of the Thomas Brothers project, said Newton County could face a lawsuit from Georgia Power should the county proceed with its plans to construct the reservoir.

Georgia Power withdraws water from the Alcovy River downstream from the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir. Georgia Power stores the water in Jackson Lake and uses the water to power an energy plant.

Hay speculated that Georgia Power would view additional withdrawals from the Alcovy River as encroaching on its own ability to withdraw a sufficient amount of water from the river, especially in times of drought.

"Any time someone starts stealing their water, they take them to court," Hay said.

However Carol Boatright, spokesperson for Georgia Power, said the company has no knowledge or intention of filing a lawsuit against the county over its plans to construct the reservoir.

"Right now all we would do is just watch the activity and see what happens and see what is done," Boatright said, adding that Georgia Power does not have an official position regarding the Bear Creek Reservoir.

Should the Thomas Brothers plant become a reality, Hay said he does have an agreement with Thomas Brothers that he will receive financial compensation of an undisclosed amount for his efforts lobbying on the plant's behalf.

Inter-basin transfers

A chief obstacle to the Thomas Brothers project is the dim view the state has taken recently to inter-basin transfers. The South River constitutes an inter-basin transfer as it receives water from the Chattahoochee River that is first used in Dekalb County before it is discharged into the South River.

David Word, a private consultant with the firm, Joe Tanner and Associates, hired by the county to research future water resources, wrote in an e-mail he did not think the South River was a viable future water resource on account of "upstream intense land use development affecting water quality," upstream combined sewer overflows and the fact that water coming from South River constituted an inter-basin transfer.

Word, a former assistant director for EPD, said the state currently looks with disfavor on inter-basin transfers because they withdraw water upstream and do not return the water to downstream communities. In times of drought the effects of inter-basin transfers are particularly exacerbated on downstream communities.

Word sited both the Metropolitan North Georgian Water Planning District and the recently approved state water plan's calls for a reduction in inter-basin transfers as a reason for the county to not take part in the Thomas Brothers project.

The possibility that DeKalb County might recycle the water it currently discharges into the South River was also sited as another reason not to move forward with the project.

"DeKalb County currently has firms evaluating that inter-basin transfer of water," Word said. "That inter-basin transfer water, I don't think, will be there much longer and it wouldn't be wise for any local government to invest the millions of dollars."

While the EPD still allows inter-basin transfers, Farrell said the general view of the state is "not too much and not too far [of a transfer]."

Farrell said the fact that there was no guarantee DeKalb County would continue to discharge water into the South River "hampers" the Thomas Brothers project in the eyes of EPD.

According to Thomas though, the natural water flow of the South River would still allow the pumping of 30 MGD a day even without the inter-basin transfer from the Chattahoochee River. Thomas said DeKalb County discharged 60 MGD into the South River.

"We have a natural 400 million gallon a day flow down the South River," Thomas said. "It's the largest river in the area."

Regardless of the South River's water flow, Farrell said EPD issues withdrawal permits based on the lowest seven-day average flow that is expected to occur in a river once every 10 years. Pumping any more additional water out of the river than permitted, even if the river has a high natural flow, is not allowed.

Thomas said he was not concerned that in the event of a drought, the county would be without the storage capacity to sustain itself that another reservoir, such as the one at Bear Creek, would provide.

"We're saying that our reservoir at Snapping Shoals is Lake Lanier," Thomas said.

Earlier this winter, Lake Lanier saw its reservoir levels fall to record-lows. The reservoir already supports approximately 5 million people living in the metro Atlanta area.

Thomas said the water plant make use of the existing reservoir at Snapping Shoals Creek, which Thomas Brothers operates. That reservoir stands full at 90 million gallons Thomas said.