Newton County’s request for a special leniency in its Section 404 Permit application, needed for the proposed Bear Creek Supply Reservoir, was denied, adding another road block to the county’s long-time water project.
The denial came in a letter, which was obtained by The News, dated Aug. 28 to Newton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Keith Ellis from Edward B. Johnson Jr., Chief of the Piedmont Branch of the Army Corps of Engineers.
The “special leniency” was asked for in an Aug. 25 meeting in Savannah between County Attorney W. T. “Tommy” Craig, Regulatory Division Chief David Lekson, Deputy Regulatory Division Chief Kim Garvey, Savannah District Counsel Paula Feldmeier, Adam White and Johnson, Jr. Concerning the leniency, the letter stated “this is a request the Corps cannot agree to."
In a letter Craig is sending to the Corps of Engineers Monday in response, he stays “contrary to Mr. Johnson’s assertion, I did not request “special leniency” in reviewing the permit application. Rather, I requested the same treatment the City of Jefferson received when its reservoir was permitted in 2014.”
Both permits were filed around the same time and Jefferson’s 404 Permit, which was filed through Craig’s office, was granted in August of 2014. Jefferson’s permit and approved compensatory mitigation plan contained language which allowed Jefferson to receive a permit and then gather baseline data and prepare 60 percent and 100 percent design plans.
Craig told The News that is what he was requesting for Newton County, to do both jobs parallel to each other and save money.
In Johnson’s letter, he said the county had not provided documentation requested in February, including information on existing available water supplies, the project purpose and need, analysis of the least environmentally damaging, practicable alternatives and a revised mitigation plan to address deficiencies outlined in the letter.
The letter also said Craig had filed for an extension until July 6 to provide a mitigation plan, which was granted, and another request for extension on July 10, which was not granted.
“Due to [this fact], we remain at a standstill on completing evaluation of your permit application,” Johnson wrote.
Craig said no specific timetable for the extension was ever requested, but an extension was requested due to scheduling problems with site evaluators getting to Newton County.
Johnson also reiterated the Corps’ questions about the need for the reservoir in light of the county’s own Water and Sewer Authority study revealed that there was no urgency to build the reservoir and the state’s 2015 population estimates.
“While the questions pertaining to the purpose and need for this proposed Reservoir remain unanswered, we have since received updated Year 2015 population estimates from the Georgia Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget (OPB), which project a nearly 50 percent drop in population between the information provided in your permit application and the referenced OPB population numbers for Newton County through the Year 2050.”
Johnson also referenced the NCWSA’s findings that it would cost considerably less and be a wiser use of public funds to repair and upgrade the county’s existing treatment facilities, and there were several flaws the county’s 2012 water supply master plan that deserved closer scrutiny.
The plan was used as the basis for the permit application Craig filed with the Corps.
“It’s [the letter] an example of government red tape trying to work through the system,” Ellis said. “Newton County continues to work to pursue through the process to make sure the county’s water needs are met.
“Tommy Craig and the consultants are preparing an answer, and an answer will be sent back to the Army Corps of Engineers Monday,” he said.
Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she first became aware of the letter on Tuesday evening, prior to the BOC meeting, when Commissioner Levie Maddox showed it to her and asked for her opinion.
“I got about half way through and I said, ‘Oh, my God’,” she said. “I was amazed.”
When copies of the letter were made to distsribute to the commissioners, she said, “Mr. Craig and Mr. Ellis took up the letters and we didn’t get to see them.”
Schulz said she sent Craig and the commissioners an email saying she was disturbed by the information she’d read, and was told she would get a copy of the letter by Friday. When she hadn’t received a copy by mid-afternoon, she sent another email request to the attorney and chair. She was then told she would get a copy of the letter on Monday.
“It was kind of confusing that it had taken all this time to get the letter,” she said. “Then I noticed that it has a [date stamp received] of August 28. I was out of town, but no one’s addressed us about it. I wasn’t aware Mr. Craig was meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers, but I wasn’t privy to the meeting they had in February, either. I found out after the fact.
“Why is everything trying to be hidden?” she said.
“It didn’t dawn on me until after this had played out that Mr. Craig billed us for going to Savannah, as well,” she said. “We paid for it. That’s my whole concern—that there’s no scope of work.”
Schulz said a special work session should be called. “This is something the board should discuss so we have a plan we’re all in agreement upon.”
When asked about the board moving forward with the project, despite the bump in the road from the Corps, Ellis said “I have not had any board members tell me they were not in favor to continue to pursue the permit.”
Craig, who was at his office throughout the day Saturday preparing a response letter, said the longest permitting process he has been a part of has lasted 10 years. He added that he will continue pursuing this project, because Newton County needs another source of water due to the likelihood of outgrowing the Lake Varner Reservoir.
“I think the darkest hour is just before dawn on this project,” Craig said. “I think sometimes it takes the Corps overstepping its bounds to bring about a meeting or meetings to result in a resolution on the issue.”
The proposal submitted to state and federal regulators justified the reservoir using a population growth model based on data from 2003 to 2006, projecting 2050 population of 361,517—over 200 percent larger than the current population.
Craig, who serves as a water supply consultant on the project as well as Newton County Attorney, has previously said those predictions and the subsequent water needs have not changed significantly since the project was first conceived.
It is estimated approximately $21 million has been spent so far on the Bear Creek Supply Reservoir, including consulting, permitting and legal fees. Originally
The Georgia Environmental Protection Department issued two withdraw permits for the project, and a 401 Water Quality Certification has also been issued.
The reservoir and associated costs, including upgrading some existing infrastructure, are currently estimated at $125 million, up from an initial estimate of $62 million. The dam and reservoir are expected to take approximately six years to complete once the Corps issues a 404 dredge and fill permit and funding is secured.
Price tags for similar reservoir projects at Hard Labor Creek in Walton County and Hickory Log Creek in Canton County have risen dramatically since they were first proposed, raising concerns that consumers and tax payers in Newton County may be left with an overwhelming debt burden. Both those reservoirs were ushered through the permitting process by Craig.
For related content, see Bear Creek permit still not close