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Craig: Bear Creek reservoir needed soon
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County attorney Tommy Craig attempted to sell the Newton County Board of Commissioners on the financial sense in accepting a $21 million state loan and starting on the process of constructing the long-proposed Bear Creek Reservoir.

Craig addressed some concerns raised by the community, including the population and water use projections used to plan Bear Creek, which were developed during the population boom, as well as the proposed costs and revenue of the project. The current estimated price tag is $62 million.

Craig, who has made a name as a reservoir expert and worked on numerous projects during the past few decades, ran through a nearly hour-long presentation Monday night that looked at the history of the Bear Creek Reservoir project and described why it the county needed to begin work now as opposed to years or even decades down the line.

The crux of the argument seemed to be that the county actually doesn't have as much water capacity currently as commonly thought. The Cornish Creek Water Treatment Plant, which draws from Lake Varner, has a stated capacity of 36 million gallons per day, but Craig said much of that is not usable. He said the actual maximum yield is only around 21 million gallons per day.

Using the 21 MGD number means that Newton County is already nearing its capacity; Craig said the county currently uses an average of 12 million gallons per day with a peak usage of 18 million gallons per day. With Baxter coming online in a couple of years and needing 1 million gallons of water day itself, Craig said the county will have little capacity to spare during a peak usage time.

He said it could take 10 years to be able to get the reservoir up and running, including building the dam, water treatment plant and piping infrastructure needed to transport water, by which time the current capacity could be tapped out. Of course, that depends on growth projections; however, Craig said another large industry or two could take up most of the remaining capacity in a short period of time.

As for the value of the state loan, Craig said the county could save $12 million by accepting the very low-interest loan from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, as opposed to using traditional financing.

He said the county "can't afford to walk away from this," and that it was "foolish for this community not to accept the generous offer we've gotten..."

Craig urged the board of commissioners to accept the loan as early as Tuesday's meeting, though he said the board could certainly delay a decision further. The board already tabled the loan at its Oct. 2 meeting.

County manager John Middleton said the reservoir would not be funded by taxpayer dollars because the costs would be paid for out of the county's water fund, which is kept separate from the general fund and is supported by water revenues not property tax dollars.

At some point, there could be a small increase in water rates to pay for the costs, but the 40-year loan has no interest for the first three years of construction and a 1.82 percent interest rate after that.

In response to a question from Chairman Kathy Morgan, Craig said that accepting the loan would not give the state any ownership over the project.

One of the people who has publicly raised questions about the project is Larry McSwain, an environmental consultant who retired from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Resource Division after 32 years and was a member of the Middle Ocmulgee Regional Water Council, which studied the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir, from 2009 to 2011.

Following Craig's presentation, McSwain said early Tuesday that he still had several questions, including:

• Is it prudent for the county to begin spending money without the required state and federal permits (which have been delayed in the past) in hand?
• Would current water revenues would be able to repay loan and engineering costs, and exactly how much of a rate increase would be required?
• How much capacity actually exists at the Cornish Creek plant and why it can treat 25 MGD if only 21 MGD can be pumped?
• Would Walton County still need to purchase its current 5 MGD from Newton County once its Hard Labor Creek reservoir, which is in process, is built? If not, does this change the need for Bear Creek?
• Are the estimates of how much water people would use in the future accurate? High estimates are 139 MGD for the metro Atlanta area, while low estimates are 102 MGD.