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Water supplies in county important
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When I was a boy, farms covered much of Newton County where share croppers had lived in my granddaddy's day. When I left Newton County in 1969 for my all-expenses-paid trip to Vietnam, there were about 20,000 people in the whole of the county, and about half of them lived in the city of Covington.

The population doubled during the next 20 years as Georgia became an economic engine not only for the South but for the nation. Newton County and the city of Covington bought hundreds of acres north of Interstate 20 to expand our industrial base, and the naysayers said that it was a complete waste of money. They said that no industry would come this far from Atlanta. Now that General Mills, C.R. Bard, SKC, Bridgestone, Clarion Metals, H.B. Fuller and other industries are here, some of the former naysayers claim it was their idea to build our industrial park.

Newton County is now partnered with Jasper, Morgan and Walton counties to develop Stanton Springs - 1,500 acres fronting one mile of Interstate 20 at exit 101 - for high-tech industry, light manufacturing, research and development, corporate offices, distribution centers and retailing. We are working with the same people who developed Johns Creek for mixed use. Some naysayers, nonetheless, are saying that no one will ever come to Stanton Springs, even though we have already been finalists for the location of two multi-million dollar sites by Fortune 500 companies. Stanton Springs is exactly what the taxpayers need, and it is going forward as planned.

As a boy, I never dreamed that water would be one of the most important public investments for Newton County. I am grateful and proud that Newton County does not depend on the kindness of strangers for its drinking water needs. We successfully permitted and completed one reservoir in the 1990s, and we are working hard on another. Until the big drought of the late 1980s, private wells and City Pond provided all the water we needed, roughly 4 million gallons per day. Our population, however, has increased five-fold in the last 40 years. We will likely need up to 47 million gallons of freshwater per day within the next 40 years, even if we implement extensive conservation measures.

When our commissioners in the late 1980s proposed that we build a new water reservoir to secure our future needs, they were told bluntly by some that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would never grant a permit for such a project. The commissioners, however, refused to take no for an answer. The county assembled a team of engineers and scientists to prove the need, site selection and design for what became the Cornish Creek Reservoir. The Cornish Creek Reservoir was the first project permitted in Georgia to successfully mitigate for the lost wetlands. The Cornish Creek Reservoir was completed in 1992, and now provides about 75 percent of Newton County's needs with volume to spare. Its treatment plant produces up to 15 million gallons of drinking water per day and is being expanded to 25 million gallons per day. The Cornish Creek Reservoir will be adequate for our needs until the Bear Creek Reservoir is completed.

Because of the county's rapid growth, an additional reservoir is under discussion not long after the Cornish Creek Reservoir was in service. Since the permitting almost 20 years ago of the Cornish Creek Reservoir, however, the process has become much more difficult for the new reservoir. Environmental regulations have become stricter. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is charged with protecting the nation's rivers and waterways, and the Corps has a duty to make sure that every dam permitted is for a proven need and will not destroy resources that cannot be easily replaced.

Time for these projects is now measured in years rather than months. The burden is on us to prove our need for the water using scientific studies, to select the most practical site and design with the least environmental impacts, and to mitigate the flooding of wetlands and streams by restoring such lands in nearby areas. Since we began working on the Bear Creek project, many of the regulations and standards have been revised. Meanwhile, Jasper County showed interest in being our 25 percent partner for the Bear Creek Reservoir just as Walton County is 25 percent partner in the Cornish Creek Reservoir. Jasper County then backed out. After each delay, we have had to redefine our basic service area, refigure our population projections for the service area and update all our other data.

The Bear Creek site was chosen as the most economically feasible site having the least impacts to the environment. Other sites were considered but rejected because they would not reliably supply the needed water well into the future, would not hold enough water, would displace larger numbers of citizens, would require the expensive rerouting of roads or would flood more wetlands than we could afford to mitigate. At the Bear Creek site, we have now acquired almost all the land needed for the project: 1,308 acres for the lake plus 725 acres for the flood easements and buffers. Because the project will affect 136 acres of wetlands, we have acquitted about 535 additional acres of wetlands as required by the Corps, for restoration and preservation. Wetlands are nature's way of filtering and cleaning water. We want the water leaving Newton County to be as clean as the water coming in.

We submitted our completed application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on November 19, 2007, and it is under review. We have done our homework. We have conducted every engineering and environmental study required, submitted extensive data and asked for public comment. We are in the process of answering the comments and criticisms submitted by federal and state agencies, environmental groups and concerned citizens. Should the Corps ask us to revise our plans based upon the comments or to submit additional data, we shall do so. Getting a permit to build a water reservoir does not require an act of Congress, but it does take considerable expertise, persistence and grit.

The taxpayers ought to know that funding for the Bear Creek Reservoir, including the land acquired, has been through a percentage of revenue set aside from the sales of water, not through ad valorem taxes or sales taxes. This county has a solid record of finishing major projects on time, under budget and within our means, e.g., the Cornish Creek Reservoir, the Law Enforcement Center and the County Administration Building.

One of the hardest things I have to do is explain to citizens what a county commission can and cannot do. We have to work within the limits of our authority and funds. The largest projects require cooperation, approval or funding by federal and state agencies. The Bear Creek Reservoir needs federal approval. It is neither easy nor cheap, but we are confident that the project as planned and sited is best for Newton County and that it will be ready long before it is needed.

Newton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Aaron Varner can be reached at (678) 625-1200.