On November 5, 2014, County Attorney Tommy Craig posted an alarming series of photographs at a work session for the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir.
The photographs showed Lake Varner’s water levels at a critically low level, its banks exposed, and dry islands rising above the surface. It was meant to emphasize the need for a new water source for the county — Bear Creek. Craig has been acting as water consultant and project manager for Bear Creek since the county began pursuing it in 1996.
Craig did not note in his presentation that the diversion pumps that fill Lake Varner had been turned off since April 29. The photograph was taken on November 4, and the pumps were turned back on November 24.
*Editor's note: the original story said "They were turned on again on November 4, the day the photograph was taken."
Newton County Water Resources Director Jason Nord confirmed that the county does not run the pumps often in the summer months to save energy and costs, and to reduce negative impacts on the environment and the quality of water. He took the photographs, and did not think their presentation was misleading.
“Tommy Craig doesn’t call me and tell me when to turn the pump on or off,” said Nord. “I don’t work for politicians; I work for the citizens of Newton County.”
Nord was responding to a technical memorandum by the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority that found fault with the county’s pump management system.
“During the eight years covered by this review, which includes the 2007-2008 historic drought period, the [water treatment plant] staff has only pumped 9% of the total available flow during the May-November time periods each year…During this time period each year the lake level is consistently falling according to the attached information provided by the WTP staff to NCWSA,” the memorandum said.
“The operational philosophy of a pumped-storage reservoir should be, at minimum, to endeavor to keep the lake as full as possible,” it continued. “It is of grave concern that the reservoir has been unnecessarily allowed to get to dangerously low levels several times during the last eight years.”
“An important conclusion from this review is that there is no immediate source water problem if the Lake Varner reservoir is properly managed,” the memorandum concluded. “The lake level fluctuations would have been minimal if this had been implemented the past eight years.”
Nord called the authority’s report “misleading” and said the plant was operating exactly as it was designed to.
“Numbers, reports and statistics can be manipulated for any reason,” said Nord, adding that the authority did not have all the necessary facts to make such a judgment.
The technical memorandum’s findings echoe those of a key study, called a safe yield analysis, commissioned by and released to the authority’s board this week, as well as an independent review the authority commissioned of the draft Master Water Plan.
Taken together, the documents concluded that Newton County’s current water resources are sufficient to carry it forward for several decades. It is on this basis that the authority has advised against construction of Bear Creek until the customer base is large enough to fund such a project.
Chairman Keith Ellis said he had read the authority’s review of the unfinished Master Water Plan but would not comment.
The authority’s review found several serious flaws in the plan, for which the county paid Krebs Engineering over $200,000.
The review, prepared by three different engineering firms and the authority’s own chief engineer, cited the Krebs plan for inflated population projections and water demands, an inadequate hydraulic model, and a “lack of understanding regarding the transmission and distribution system.”
“People are reviewing that,” said Ellis of the review. “I do not get into technical stuff.”
He said to his knowledge, there was no scheduled meeting between the Board of Commissioners and the Water Authority. Commissioner Nancy Schulz suggested a joint work session between the two bodies at Tuesday’s meeting. Nord said he was preparing to hold a regular meeting with the technical staff of all the county’s wholesale customers.
The amount of water available in Lake Varner has implications for the timeline of the construction of Bear Creek. All parties agree that at some point, an additional water source will be needed.
The public work session, the Krebs report, and Craig’s statements to the public have given the impression that Newton County is facing an imminent water shortage in the face of rapid growth.
The authority’s findings have called that into question and raised questions about information presented to the public about Bear Creek.
The presentation given by Craig at the November work session cost the county between $12,000 and $18,000, according to an invoice submitted by Craig on November 10 (some of the preparation for the work session was bundled with other expenses). That presentation included a slide that estimated Lake Varner’s safe yield had decreased from 23 mgd (million gallons a day) to 20.4 mgd based on a letter provided by Schnabel Engineering, which was awarded a $2 million no bids contract to design the dam in 2012.
Craig claimed publicly that no safe yield analysis had been done since the 2008 drought of record, and suggested Schnabel conduct one for $86,000. The proposal was scrapped when the water authority stepped in and offered to do a safe yield analysis at its own expense.
Shortly thereafter, engineer Jim Mathis, formerly of Infratec Consultants, came forward to say he had been hired by Craig in 2009 to carry out a safe yield analysis that included the most recent drought data.
A copy of the analysis, along with a submission letter signed by Craig, was found on file with the Environmental Protection Division. That letter and attached analysis stated that Lake Varner’s safe yield remained 23 mgd, unchanged by the 2008 drought.
When asked about the Infratec report after a BOC meeting last month, Craig refused to comment. He has not responded to multiple attempts to reach him for comment since.
The safe yield analysis commissioned by the authority, which was carried out by WK Dickson, put Lake Varner’s safe yield at 23 mgd, confirming the 2009 report.
The authority’s report calculated Bear Creek Reservoir’s safe yield at only 23.8 mgd, without taking into account the county’s recent proposal to move the dam upstream, which, the report said, would likely reduce safe yield even further. The 404 Dredge and Fill permit application submitted to the Army Corp of Engineers says the reservoir would supply approximately 28 mgd.
Members of the authority's board also expressed concern that Bear Creek would draw on the same water source as the county’s existing facilities.
“It is a pretty limited watershed,” said Executive Director Mike Hopkins. “You’re not dealing with the Chattahoochee.”
Hopkins and Chief Engineer Scott Emmons said the authority’s latest findings confirm their view that the county should prioritize addressing deficiencies in the existing infrastructure and management.
“The source water concern is not an immediate concern,” said Emoa. “The treatment capacity is an immediate concern."