Despite spending more than $21 million to date on the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir, Newton County appears nowhere close to obtaining a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, which recently questioned the continued need for the project as well as the information presented in the county's application.
Notes from a February 13 meeting in Savannah between county representatives and the Corps, which were obtained via an open records request to the Corps, detail concerns regarding several aspects of the Bear Creek project.
The Corps representatives questioned the county's assessment of existing water supplies, population projections, project need and purpose, and alternatives analysis, as well as onsite avoidance and minimization, and mitigation.
The meeting was attended by Commissioners Lanier Sims and Levie Maddox; Chairman Keith Ellis; Dave Campell of Schnabel Engineering; County Manager Tom Garrett; Bear Creek project manager and County Attorney Tommy Craig, and two of his attorneys who have since left his firm, Lara Benz and Andrea Gray.
The Corps' representatives inquired about several existing and pending studies, which had not been made available to them. These studies included the 2009 Lake Varner safe yield analysis prepared by Infratec, which found that the safe yield of the lake was unaffected by the most recent drought; the draft Water Supply Master Plan prepared by Krebs Engineering; the review of the Krebs plan by the Newton County Water Authority, which was pending at the time; and the safe yield analysis commissioned by the Water Authority, also unfinished at the time of the meeting.
In November, Craig claimed publicly that no updated safe yield analysis had been completed. Later, a copy of the 2009 Infratec was found on file with the Environmental Protection Division, with a submission letter signed by Craig.
According to the Corps' records, in February Craig said that the 2009 study was "not prepared by a competent consultant and was therefore not furnished to either [the Corps] or the applicant."
The Master Water Plan, for which the county paid more than $200,000, remained in draft form, Craig said, and was therefore "unsuitable" for submission.
"As a result of their opinion regarding the earlier studies, the Agent indicated that the subsequent studies...would be based on flawed assumptions and inaccuracies, and would therefore be inappropriate to furnish to [the Corps]..."
The Water Authority's safe yield confirmed the 2009 study that the safe yield of Lake Varner remained unaffected by the latest drought.
The Corps also noted that the permit application utilized population projections based on census data from 2000, and that more recent projections were substantially lower.
According to the notes, "The Applicant indicated that their projections were based on information provided to them by [the Governor's Office of Planning and Development] through Year 2050."
"[The Corps' representative] questioned this statement, as OPB staff specifically indicated that their office did not prepare projections beyond 2030."
Based on the lower population projections, the Corps' representatives noted that the reservoir may not be needed by 2050. They also emphasized that the issuance of withdrawal permits and water quality certification is not sufficient to justify the continued need for the project. Moreover, potential commercial use and economic development were not included in the stated need within the permit application, and could therefore not be taken into account.
The Corps' representatives also expressed concerns that the county had not sufficiently explored all practical alternatives, including upgrades to the existing infrastructure.
"The Agent presented an estimated cost schedule for necessary system improvements, but did not fully elaborate on the factors informing the cost-benefit analysis sufficient for [the Corps] to understand why these measures were not viable means to off-set some portion of project need," the notes read.
According to the notes, the Corps' representatives questioned the county's assertion that the revised plan, which moved the dam 600 feet upstream, represents the 'Least Environmentally Damaging Practical Alternative' (LEDPA).
"[The Corps] explained that the analysis was flawed because the revised reservoir study did not have as its purpose the object of determining a LEDPA or...avoiding and minimizing impacts to jurisdictional waters. Rather the stated purpose of the study was...[to] reduce cost, improve resilience and operational performance and/or fewer impacts to roads."
Finally, the Corps' representatives clarified that because the project was revised significantly enough to warrant a public notice when the dam was moved, project mitigation could not be "grandfathered" around compliance with the terms of a 2008 rule. Therefore, the Corps would be providing comments requiring mitigation plan revisions soon.
Sims, Maddox, Ellis, and Craig could not be reached for comment.