COVINGTON - Citing the county’s failure to provide the information requested in August – information that was also requested in February – the Army Corps of Engineers decided not to reinstate the permit application for the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir, a project that has already cost Newton County more than $21 million over 18 years.
In a letter received Oct. 9, Edward Johnson, Chief of the Piedmont Branch of the Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District, wrote “I reviewed the statements and materials that Mr. [Tommy] Craig submitted in support of your request… and because they were not responsive to the information we requested in our August 28, 2015 letter withdrawing your permit application (enclosed), or availing as to why we do not need that information for our review, I must decline your request to reinstate your permit at this time.”
Newton County Attorney W.T. "Tommy" Craig wrote Friday in an email to commissioners and copied to the media, “In anticipation of the response we received from the Corps, in early September I began assembling the additional information requested so we can present it to the Corps and succeed in having our application reinstated for processing.”
Several items had been repeatedly requested by the Corps. Craig had contended those requests were invalid or not needed for various reasons.
County and Corps officials, including Craig and Johnson, had met Feb. 13 and again on Aug. 24.
In the Corps’ Aug. 28 letter, the Corps asked for information addressing many of the same questions raised in the February meeting.
These included a look at more recent population estimates, such as the Ga. Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget’s 2015 projection which showed a lower population in Newton County for 2030 than estimated in the application – nearly 50 percent less. The application’s estimates were reportedly based on the 2000 Census, which was taken during a period of rapid growth for Newton County. This growth has since slowed significantly during and after the recession.
Craig responded in his Sept. 21 letter that Newton County was relying on a 2006 need certification issued by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (Ga. EPD) that remained effective. “Newton County has substantially relied on Georgia EPD’s 2006 need certification and upon the Corps’ July 2013 determination project need had been adequately demonstrated.”
The Corps had asked about existing studies from various agencies – studies that the county had not yet provided to the Corps – showing a lack of urgency for needing the reservoir, adequate current water supplies and more urgently needed improvements and repairs for existing water facilities.
One study by the Newton County Water and Sewer Authority (NCWSA) “found that a) there was no urgency to build the reservoir; b) a wiser use of funds would be to repair/upgrade Newton County’s existing treatment facilities,” according to the Corps. In a memo from the February meeting, the Corps also asked about a 2009 study by Infratec on the amount of water that Newton’s existing reservoir Lake Varner could safely yield and a Board of Commissioners-issued Water Master Plan that had remained in “draft” form since October 2014.
Craig responded in his Sept. 21 letter that the NCWSA was not responsible for the county’s water supply needs, the Board of Commissioners was. Craig added that the project was designed to meet the county’s needs on a 50-year plan. “The County must demonstrate need but not ‘urgency,’” he wrote.
Craig wrote Friday in the email to commissioners, “On issues not previously decided, the Corps is (sic) an obligation to make its decision based on ‘the best available information.’ My argument was and is that previous regulatory and project managers have already made decisions on many of the subjects about which the Corps continues to request new information.”
The Corps' decision does not mean a denial of the application. The county can request again to reinstate the application after providing the requested information.
Johnson wrote in the Corps’ Oct. 9 letter, “You may submit a future written request to reopen your application when you are ready to submit the outstanding information we addressed.”
The letter explained that the request to reopen the application would require that the Corps consider any new relevant laws or new relevant data, such as “population projections indicating a sharp drop in population.”
In his Sept. 21 letter, Craig had blasted the Corps for the frequent turnover in project managers – 10 since 2000 – and the confusion and increased costs it caused. “I have represented water supply projects before the Savannah District for more than a quarter century. Perhaps my experience can lend perspective,” he wrote.
“Our regulatory professionals adhere to strict federal guidance and regulations when working with applicants on the permitting process,” said Russell Wicke, Chief of the Corps’ Savannah District Corporate Communications Office in an earlier statement. “All of our regulators are experienced professionals who meet the highest standards of consistency when evaluating applications.
“We have a firm understanding of the project and the application process and history,” Wicke said.
In his Oct. 9 email to commissioners, Craig added, “Take comfort in the fact that the ‘dueling letters’ is a normal part of the process of moving reservoir projects toward a successful conclusion.”
In February of 2012 Hall County released Craig as consultant on the proposed Glades Reservoir project. Earlier this summer Craig was removed as project manager for the South Fulton Municipal and Regional Water and Sewer Authority’s Bear Creek Reservoir. Grady County also released Craig as the consultant in March for the Tired Creek reservoir, for which his firm obtained a Corps permit in 2010.
Craig did obtain a $21 million low-interest state loan for Newton's proposed Bear Creek Reservoir from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority in 2012. Today, the reservoir and associated costs, including upgrading some existing infrastructure, are currently estimated at $125 million, up from the original $63.7 million.