The Newton County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved accepting a $21 million, low-interest state loan for the construction of the long-proposed Bear Creek Reservoir and spending $2 million to have an engineering firm to design the reservoir's dam.
The board's Tuesday vote followed a nearly hour-long presentation on the reservoir, and the county's need for it, given Monday night by county attorney Tommy Craig.
While nearly everyone believes the reservoir will eventually be needed, some residents questioned whether construction on the reservoir, which would be located in southeast Newton County, was needed anytime soon.
However, Craig argued that not only is the county's current water supply actually smaller than popularly thought, but also said the state's long-term, very low-interest loan was too good to pass up.
At Craig's suggestion, the board unanimously approved hiring Schnabel Engineering to design the dam for the new reservoir; the design work is expected to cost around $1.9 million. Craig said Monday that Schnabel was "clearly the best firm in the eastern U.S." and built approximately 85 percent of large dams in that area. He said Schnabel worked on the Lake Varner reservoir project in Newton County in the early 1990s.
District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz asked why the dam design should not be bid out. Because dam design falls under the category of professional services, it does not technically have to be bid out.
"I've heard good reports about Schnabel and so I understand the need to make a good decision and especially when we are talking about professional services, but the $1.9 million dollars is concerning to me because we have a purchasing plan where we have to have approval and request proposals when we have certain service or certain engineering services, but now we're avoiding that process because this is considered professional services" Schulz said.
Craig said the county always gets bids for transportation projects or building projects, where there are many firms that can do the work, but a reservoir is much more specialized work.
"You start naming the projects in Georgia that you know about that are big and I'll tell you who designed the dam and most of the time we are going to be saying Schnabel, Schnabel, Schnabel. Because when it gets right down to it people don't trust these projects to just anybody," Craig said Tuesday.
He said a different engineering firm originally designed the Lake Varner dam, but said he called in Schnabel to look at the design and Schnabel was able to save somewhere between $1.5 million and $2 million on the actual construction costs.
As part of the process for Bear Creek, Schnabel would do geotechnical engineering to determine whether the soil on site at the reservoir location would be suitable to be used to build an earthen dam, as opposed to having to use concrete to build a dam, which is much more expensive. The firm would also design the spillway and do other testing and design work.
"I rarely speak on votes but I would like to speak on this one," said Chairman Kathy Morgan. "I've done research as well and this is a great firm with a great reputation. And also this staff individually has a great reputation and I think it's something that we should consider for approval. I do understand and think we should be sure that it is indicated in the motion that it is conditioned to receiving the permit (for the reservoir, which has yet to be issued)."
Water supply plan
The board also approved hiring Krebs Architecture & Engineering to do a $25,000 preliminary study to see how much it would cost to develop a master water supply contract. The master water supply contract would cover several things, including:
• How to move water around the county from where its produced to where its needed
• If any improvements can be made at the current Cornish Creek Water Treatment Plant (Lake Varner)
• What to do with the 60-plus-year-old William Street Water Treatment Plant (City Pond)
• Where to locate a water treatment plant and other infrastructure at the Bear Creek Reservoir site
• How the Bear Creek Reservoir would be funded and what would have to be done with future water rates
Craig said Krebs was the best engineering firm he had found in his 25 years of working on water projects. This project was also not bid out.
The $21 million, 40-year state loan has very affordable rates and will pay for the construction of the dam and reservoir, which is expected to take about two years. The loan was awarded by the Governor's Water Supply Program, though the actual money comes from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority and Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
Newton County's loan calls for 0 percent interest for the first three years of construction and 1 percent interest for any construction time after that, which doesn't have to be paid at the time but can be added to the loan amount. Then for the remainder of the 40 years, the interest rate will be 1.82 percent, with the first seven years consisting of interest-only payments and the remaining years of principal and interest payments. There are also no loan closing fees.
Is the reservoir needed now?
One of the reasons for Craig's presentation on Monday was to answer questions raised by residents. Former Department of Natural Resources employee Larry McSwain wrote a letter to the board of commissioners asking whether the county needed to move forward with an expensive project that may not be needed for decades depending on the growth and water use projections used.
The population projections used in the reservoir permit application for Bear Creek were developed in 2003 through 2006, during the height of the population boom in Newton County. Those projections said Newton County would have 400,000 people in 50 years.
Craig said there is no requirement for the county to go back and revisit its population projections; the numbers were certified by the Environmental Protection Division. Significantly slower growth would certainly affect water need.
Another issue was the average water use per person per day. The loan accepted by the county forecasts that residents in 2050 will use 130 gallons per person per day. The Middle Ocmulgee Regional Water Plan, which was developed by a group that included McSwain, said water use would only be 118 gallons per person per day.
Craig said another resource, the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District, which does not technically even include Newton County, estimated the use in the county to be 139 gallons per person per day. Craig said that people in more dense environments tend to use more water, though it was unclear if this takes into account business and industry use, which do tend to use much larger amounts of water than families.
However, according to a Feb. 2011 water metrics report from that same Metro North Georgia district, per capita water use in the metro area (again excluding Newton) was 128 gallons per day in 2006, 123 gallons in 2007, 104 gallons in 2008 and 102 in 2009. The drought hit in 2008, so those numbers may be low, but there are reasons to believe that per capita water use would remain lower as opposed to rising significantly, especially if drought conditions persist.
A difference of 20 gallons per day per person multiplied by 400,000 people equals 8 million gallons. A similar difference would be made if the population of the county was significantly less than projected. Point being, wildly different projections of water use can make a significant difference in how much water capacity is needed.
According to a 2011 plan by the Middle Ocmulgee state water group, Newton County wouldn't exceed its current water capacity until 2040. The plan said that Newton County currently was permitted to withdraw a total of 32.9 million gallons per day (MGD) and that it would need more by 2040 and need a total of 50.1 MGD by 2050.
However, one of the main points Craig made is that the county actually has less water available than commonly thought. According to Jason Nord, the county's water resources director, Newton County is actually only permitted to withdraw and treat 25 MGD.
Even that number is a little deceiving, as that would be the peak amount the county could treat at any one time. As for the amount of water the county could provide on a regular basis for a long period of time without running the reservoir too low, Craig and Nord agreed it was closer to 21-22 MGD combined for the Lake Varner and City Pond reservoir.
However, that number also has to be put in context, since water usage is traditionally much higher in the summer and much lower in the winter. Therefore, if the county needed 25 MGD during the summer, it could do that and the reservoir would be OK as long as the use during the winter was low enough (around 18 MGD) that the average was in the 21-22 MGD range.
The projections are important, because even though the state gave the county a very low-interest, long-term loan, if costs are incurred and no additional revenue is coming in because no one needs the water from Bear Creek, then it would most likely be the current water payers who would have to foot the bill for at least part of the cost. The county has several years until costs would have to be incurred, but the question is whether Bear Creek is needed by 2025, 2040 or somewhere in between.
Of course, a special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) could also be passed to pay down debt, but that's still taxpayers paying for something they're not currently using.
However, if the county does need all of that water and there are many more customers, then the increased volume of sales would help cover the additional costs of paying down debt and would result in a win-win for the county and water users.
The News will have another story next week taking a more in-depth look at exactly how much water we have in Newton County.