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More questions than answers over water
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How much water does Newton County have? The Water and Sewerage Authority hopes to finally put this question to rest after an old report surfaced this week that appears to contradict claims made by water consultant and County Attorney Tommy Craig.

The authority will go forward with its plan to conduct safe yield analyses for Lake Varner and the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir after the authority and the Board of Commissioners received copies of a 2009 report that includes safe yield analyses for those sites. A safe yield analysis calculates how much water can be withdrawn from a given source, taking into account extended drought and peak usage, such as a large fire.

The 2009 study, conducted by Infratec Consulting, an engineering firm that had been working for the county for more than 20 years, concluded that Lake Varner’s safe yield was relatively unaffected by the 2007 drought of record, and the reservoir could still be counted on to provide 23 million gallons a day (MGD).

The study was commissioned by Craig and carried out using public funds, but was apparently never shown to commissioners. Instead, they read the following in a draft version of the master water plan prepared by Krebs Engineering for $240,000:

“Prior to the drought of record (2007), the Lake Varner safe yield…was estimated to be 23 MGD. A more recent study by Schnabel Engineering…incorporated the 2007 drought of record and estimated the safe yield to be 20.4 MGD.”

Schnabel, which was awarded a $2 million contract to design the Bear Creek dam in 2012, offered to carry out a new, detailed safe yield analysis for $86,000. Craig, who is also acting as a water consultant for the county, supported Schnabel’s bid because he said updated data was needed to complete the master water plan.

The difference between the study’s finding that Lake Varner’s safe yield was 23 MGD and Schnabel’s estimate that it had gone down to 20.4 could have implications for the construction timeline of Bear Creek, which is estimated to cost over $100 million, excluding the $21.6 million the county has already spent, according to Craig.

Supporters of the project say construction should begin as soon as possible because Lake Varner will not be able to meet the needs of a growing population for long. Critics say the population projections used to justify Bear Creek are outdated and inflated, and Lake Varner coupled with alternative water sources could put off construction until the customer base can support the cost, perhaps indefinitely.

The same week the BOC was set to vote on Schnabel’s bid, the authority sent a letter informing the board of its decision to contract and oversee the work itself, leading the BOC to table the study indefinitely.

Mike Hopkins, the authority’s executive director, said it was “interesting” that the study had not been referred to or made available until this week, when the engineer who authored it sent it to Commissioner Nancy Schulz.

Hopkins said the authority was still reviewing it, but that so far the study appeared “pretty detailed” and could help identify a trend in water yield once the authority carries out its own study.

“We’re going forward and trying to do a valid independent study, and any information like this is beneficial,” he said.
“Someone asked me if am I against Bear Creek and I said, ‘no I can’t make that determination till I see everything’,” he continued. “I think we’re in this process of seeing everything.”

The county paid the company, Infratec, a total of $26,543.29 that year for expenses related to Bear Creek permitting and land acquisition, as well as the expansion of the Cornish Creek water treatment facility. The invoices do not list the study as an independent expense, but James Mathis, the engineer and former head of Infratec, estimated that he was paid about $15,000 for the updated report.

“I knew there was a [safe yield] analysis—I had it on my personal computer,” Mathis said when he heard that the county was considering paying for a new one. “I don’t know if it was forgotten or it got misplaced.”

He also said that he used the original aerial topographic survey of Lake Varner from the 1980’s in his report, a survey that Craig said was lost.

Multiple attempts to reach Craig for comment were unsuccessful.

When Schulz received the 2009 report this week, she went back to her notes from that year but could not find any evidence the BOC reviewed it. She said she was certain, however, that the apparent misplacement of the study was an honest mistake and said its emergence was evidence that the county was “moving in the right direction.”

“I do believe that we are progressing towards the transparency that the public really wants and the steps that we have taken in the last few months is evidence of the fact that this is the public’s money and the public needs to be part of this dialogue and we’re all sensitive to that,” she said.

She also disclosed that she had received personal campaign donations from Mathis; one for $300 is viewable in state campaign finance disclosure records, which only go back five years. According to public records, Commissioner J.C. Henderson received $400 in 2010 from Infratec. Henderson was recently found to have failed to file campaign contribution disclosure reports for several years.

Commissioner Lanier Sims declined to comment until he has had sufficient time to review the study.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he did not remember ever seeing the report before he received a copy this week.
Attempts to reach Commissioner Levie Maddox and Chairman Keith Ellis were unsuccessful.

Commissioner John Douglas declined to comment, referring The News to Craig.