A public information meeting Thursday night on the county's plans to construct the Bear Creek Reservoir degenerated into personal attacks on the county attorney from audience members with a personal stake in the project.
The well-attended meeting was held by the Newton County Board of Commissioners at the Historic Courthouse in order to fulfill the public comment process the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers requires before it will issue the environmental 404 permit necessary for construction of the reservoir to begin. Representatives from the Corp of Engineers were on hand at the meeting to observe the public's reaction to the project.
County Attorney Tommy Craig, who after steering Newton County through the permitting process for Lake Varner in the 1980s gained a name for himself throughout the Southeast as an expert on the permitting of reservoirs, lead the meeting with a presentation on the history of the Bear Creek Reservoir project, its purpose, an analysis of alternatives to building the reservoir and an overview of plans for environmental mitigation.
Craig said he expected the state regulatory process would probably take another 12 to 15 months before a permit for the project could be expected.
Hal Bryan, the president and senior ecologist with Eco-South Inc., assisted Craig in his presentation by describing what environmental mitigation steps the county would likely have to undertake if it was granted a 404 permit.
Bryan said the county would need to create the equivalent of 136 acres of wetland to mitigate against the environmental effects of the reservoir. Bryan's research included 10 sites where the county could pursue mitigation efforts.
"Reservoirs are not a natural occurrence," Bryan said.
After the presentation Craig opened the floor up to questions from the audience, of which there were many. Nearly all of the questions Craig fielded were of a negative nature and dealt with the county's decision to build the reservoir at all, at Bear Creek in particular and on Craig's involvement with the project. Nearly everyone who raised a question had a personal stake in the project.
"I am used to personal attacks and I don't guess that I get as excited about them as some people might," Craig said Friday.
Plans to build the reservoir began back in 1996 but due largely to bureaucratic red tape and a failed collaboration attempt with Jasper County the project has stalled.
The proposed site of the reservoir is directly downstream from Henderson Mill Road Bridge where it crosses Bear Creek in the southeastern end of the county. Once complete the reservoir will encompass 1,242 acres.
Other impacts of the project include the flooding of 10 residences and portions of Macedonia Road, Gaithers Road, Benton Road, Old Post Road and Henderson Mill Road.
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.
Craig said Thursday night the reservoir was constructed with the intent of meeting the needs of a projected population of 361,517 in the county by 2050. According to the county's calculations such a population would need 47 MGD. The county has a current water supply of 21.25 MGD.
In considering where to build a reservoir to address the county's future water needs, the BOC considered four possibilities: Snapping Shoals Creek, Little River I above Shoal Creek, Little River II below Shoal Creek and Bear Creek at Henderson Mill Road, which they ultimately settled on.
According to the presentation given by Craig, Snapping Shoals was discarded as a possibility because it would have meant flooding 189 homes, several roads and multiple utility lines.
Little River I above Shoal Creek was scrapped as a possibility because the reservoir would have been built upstream of sewer plants and industrial development and would have been almost entirely located inside Morgan County. It also would have yielded only 18 MGD - 7.5 MGD short of the county's projected need. Little River II below Shoal Creek was rejected by the county for the same reasons as Little River I.
"I've done my homework. I know what I'm doing and nothing I'm hearing makes me think we've made a wrong decision," Craig said Friday on the decision to locate the reservoir at Bear Creek.
Sam M. Hay III questioned why the county didn't simply draw water directly out of the South River. Hay claimed that doing so would have "zero impact" on the surrounding land.
Craig responded to Hay's comments by saying the county didn't consider withdrawing water from the South River because much of the water is the waste water DeKalb County produces and would require considerable effort to purify for drinking purposes. Craig added that DeKalb County was currently considering a plan to re-use the water it currently returns to the South River.
Should such a plan go into effect, Craig said the county could not rely on a steady supply of water coming from the South River. Craig added that in times of drought the county would have no reserve storage capacity to fall back on if it withdrew its water directly from the South River as proposed by Hay.
Hoke Thomas with Thomas Brothers Hydro, Inc. also spoke in favor of pumping water directly from the South River. In June, 2004 Thomas unsuccessfully petitioned the BOC to use his company for the construction of a drinking water filtration plant to clean water pumped from the South River, according to minutes from the meeting.
Thomas questioned the county's need for any more storage capacity in building the Bear Creek Reservoir.
"My understanding is there's nothing special about Thomas Brothers Hydro facility," Craig said. "Nobody wants [the project] right now because they're afraid of the quality of water."
Residents from Jasper County, including Jasper County Chairman Jack Bernard, were also on hand to express frustration with the project Thursday night.
"The sense I got from the people from Jasper County who attended that meeting and were negative about the project is that they would like to find a way to get back in and be participants of the project," Craig said Friday.
Though there were considerable discussions in 2003 of Jasper County participating with Newton County on the reservoir project, the Jasper County Board of Commissioners rejected a partnership agreement with Newton County in 2004. In July, 2004, the Newton BOC voted to move forward with the project without Jasper County.
"I don't know why they backed out but I think there was an overriding sense of mistrust on the part of some people," Craig said. "They thought [the partnership agreement] we had offered was unfair. On the other hand I think that what we had offered was more than fair and as far as we could go."
According to Craig, the partnership agreement the BOC offered to Jasper County would have allowed Jasper County to pay for its share of the land necessary for the reservoir at the land prices Newton County had purchased it for 10 years earlier.
"We couldn't have offered them a better deal with out just giving them money," Craig said,
Towards the end of Thursday's meeting Emmet Denby, the sole homeowner to continue to resist the county's efforts to acquire his land for the reservoir and a former candidate in 2004 for county chairman, was thrown out of the meeting by two sheriff's deputies when he refused to surrender the microphone after Craig chose not to call on him for the last question of the evening.
County Chairman Aaron Varner, ordered him escorted from the meeting.
Bobby Sigman, a former Covington councilman and perennial political candidate, questioned Craig on why the county does not yet have any cost projections for the reservoir.
"You are obligated to the taxpayer to tell us how much the reservoir is going to cost," Sigman said.
Craig responded that a full cost-analysis for Lake Varner was not available when the reservoir was first considered in the 1980s but that everyone now agrees the county was right to move forward with the project in light of what it has meant to the county in times of drought.
"Water in this part of Georgia is sufficiently scarce and sufficiently valuable that we're just going to have to pay the cost within reason," Craig said.
On Friday Craig said though cost estimates for the project are not yet available, the single largest expense associated with the project, land acquisition, had already been taken care of.
"Nobody knows exactly what it will cost us to develop this water supply," Craig said. "The thing that we do know is that it's not going to get any cheaper and that when we get it done we'll have something that will be highly marketable. Whatever portion of it we don't need we'll be able to sell."