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Newton recognized for water protection
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Local officials frequently boast about Newton County's abundant water supply, and they can now boast about their efforts to protect that supply.

Newton County and its five cities were declared WaterFirst communities by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) at a ceremony Wednesday. WaterFirst is a state designation that recognizes and rewards counties for taking a proactive approach to managing water resources.

"WaterFirst is a program looking for good stewards of our natural resources," said Deatre Denion, the program's coordinator. "(Designees) have to show they are striving for environmental excellence; that they are going above and beyond their legal requirements."

The county was graded on seven criteria: watershed management, stormwater master planning, water supply planning, water supply protection, water conservation, wastewater treatment and water reclamation.

Jim Frederick, DCA's director of the office of planning and quality growth, said not only does a WaterFirst designation show that the county is protecting its natural resources, it also shows the county is being efficient and not wasting taxpayers' dollars.

Compliance with WaterFirst principles is voluntary, but there are tangible benefits, including:
- statewide recognition for environmental stewardship
- paying one percent less in interest on any Georgia Environmental Finance Authority loan
- being eligible to apply more frequently for water-related grants through the Community Development Block Grant fund
- having priority for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' 319 grant program, which is a pollution control program

The program's review staff praised Newton County for its outstanding water education, impressive water buffer program and its future planning and regional cooperation. The county's 2050 Build Out Plan was a key component, as that plan seeks to direct future population into dense communities in order to both control population growth and reduce the need for lots of piping and infrastructure. The protection of water is one of the plan's four founding principles.

County Chairman Kathy Morgan said these efforts weren't started so the county could get a WaterFirst designation.

"This is the way wee live in Newton County every day. Water is a significant element for us in our planning and the way we live our lives," she said. "This is because of the people that work for us and live in this community."

Mike Hopkins, director of the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority, said the county had several things going for it, including its drinking water reservoir, Lake Varner, the fact its water and wastewater treatment facilities are all in compliance with laws, its stringent stream buffer requirements and even the recent emphasis on environmentally-friendly LEED buildings.

Newton County and its five cities along with the water authority were jointly the 25th entity in Georgia to receive the WaterFirst designation since the program was formed in 2002.