Divisions over how to address Newton County’s future water needs resurfaced this week, pitting proponents of the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir against critics who question its necessity and timing.
The proposed reservoir, which is awaiting final approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, has been a source of tension in the community since the recession called into question the population growth rates used to calculate future water demand.
The plan has also been targeted by the Environmental Protection Agency, local conservation groups and some residents for allegedly failing to demonstrate serious study of cheaper, more ecological alternatives. Concerns have also been raised regarding a perceived lack of transparency regarding the project.
The reservoir and associated costs, including upgrading some existing infrastructure, are currently estimated at $125 million, up from an initial estimate of $62 million. The dam and reservoir are expected to take approximately six years to complete once the Corps issues a 404 dredge and fill permit and funding is secured.
County Attorney Tommy Craig, who is also acting as a water supply consultant on the Bear Creek project, sought to address concerns in an open Board of Commissioners work session Wednesday evening where he reiterated his case for the reservoir and fielded questions from the community.
He recalled times such as the drought of record in 2007 and the drought of 1996-98 that he said threatened the existence of the community. The drought in the ’90’s opened the way for a Special Local Option Sales Tax to build the Varner Lake Reservoir.
“I was county attorney when we ran out of water in 86 through 88 and we realized that we needed to build a reservoir or this community would disappear,” Craig said in a follow up interview, recalling how he succeeded in getting the original Cornish Creek reservoir approved in six months. “It’s become harder and harder to get reservoirs approved.”
At the working meeting, Craig laid out a plan outlined in the report to address the impending shortage in two phases. The first would consist of improvements to the existing water treatment facilities costing an estimated $24.1 million. The second phase would see the construction of the Bear Creek dam and reservoir and treatment facility at an estimated cost of $100.9 million for a total budget of $125 million.
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Newton County requires between 8-12 million gallons of water a day (MGD). Although the county is permitted to withdraw and treat 25 MGD, Craig estimated that inadequate infrastructure limits production to 18 MGD, several million gallons less than he estimated during a similar meeting in 2012. The 1,242 acre Bear Creek reservoir is designed to eventually yield 28 MG.
The proposal submitted to state and federal regulators justified the reservoir using a population growth model based on data from 2003 to 2006, projecting 2050 population of 361,517—over 200 percent larger than the current population.
On Wednesday, Craig insisted the projected 2050 population and subsequent water needs have not changed significantly since the project was first conceived some 14 years ago, citing more recent population projections from several sources, including Corps of Engineers (361,150) the Mid Ocmulgee Regional Water Council (371,631) and the 2050 Plan (400,000).
He also backed the original calculations that per capita water usage would rise from 110 gallons a day to 130, and that the percentage of residents served by public water would increase to 100%. It currently stands at around 70% according to the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority.
In 2013, the Georgia Environmental Protection Department, which is tasked with reviewing alleged need and impact of dams and reservoirs on downstream communities, issued two withdraw permits for Bear Creek, essentially verifying need based on the submitted population projections and per capita usage. A 401 Water Quality Certification has also been issued.
However, some continue to question the accuracy of the Bear Creek numbers, especially given than demographic trends can take years to become apparent.
For instance, the 2012 population estimates issued by the Georgia Office of Planning and Budget (OPB) lowered Newton County’s projected 2030 population by 30 percent from 227,537 to 159,583, according to Larry McSwain, a local resident and outspoken critic of the Bear Creek project.
“The county has not really clearly justified the need for this reservoir and relied on overblown population projections,” said Chris Manganiello of the Georgia River Network. He added that over time, per capita consumption typically decreases, as it has in the metro Atlanta area.
“For one reason or another Newton County is arguing that consumption will go up,” he said.
When reached for comment, Craig rejected that assertion, arguing that per capita water usage in the metro Atlanta area only appeared to drop over time due to several factors, including water lost through leakage.
Some of the data Craig presented can be found in a draft copy of the Newton County Master Water Plan provided to The Covington News by McSwain, a former assistant director of the wildlife resources division in the Georgia department of natural resources.
In November 2012, Krebs Engineering was hired to carry out a preliminary master water supply plan for $25,000. Neither the water supply plan nor the contract to design the dam, which was awarded to Schnabel Engineering at the same meeting for $1.9 million, was subjected to an open tender.
By the time the master plan was handed over in March to Craig and Newton County Chairman Keith Ellis, the company had billed the county over $200,000. The report has not been made public or passed on to the other commissioners, according to Commissioner Nancy Schulz. District 1 Commissioner John Douglas, who represents the district where the proposed reservoir would be built, could not be reached for comment.
Craig defended the decision not to distribute the report on the grounds that it is still in draft form. However, many of the numbers are the same as those included in permit applications submitted years ago, raising suspicions in some corners.
“I think a master water plan would have been appropriate in order to know how to integrate Bear Creek and to know the status of the other infrastructure, but when I read the population projection and I saw that it was the same as the 404 [permit application], I became concerned that the report was used to justify Bear Creek,” McSwain said. “You would think it would be an original piece of work.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, Schulz revealed that approximately $21 million has been spent so far on the Bear Creek project, but the commissioner’s office was unable to provide details as of press time. Shulz also expressed frustration with the fact that she had not received a response to her request for access to the plan submitted by Krebs.
Some have also questioned whether Craig’s dual roles as County Attorney and water supply consultant constitute a conflict of interest.
“In both capacities I pursue Newton County’s best interest,” he said. “Unless there are competing interests then I don’t see a conflict.”
ALTERNATIVES AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
While off channel reservoirs like the one proposed for Bear Creek are less damaging than main stem reservoirs, any reservoir would lower the net quantity of water in the river system, affecting water flow and local ecosystems. The EPA and others have criticized the Bear Creek plan, asserting that dams and reservoirs should be the last option considered.
Alternatives can include increasing water efficiency and reuse, repairing existing infrastructure, expanding groundwater use, and purchasing water from neighboring counties.
Todd Rasmussen, a hydrologist at the University of Georgia, said the emphasis should be on reuse, adding that education was needed to counter public resistance to the idea of drinking treated wastewater.
“Within the profession we say that we’ve got to go to reuse but this is a lightning rod issue, and if you touch it you’re going to get shocked,” he said. “What I would like to see is a long term PR or education campaign with children to say ‘it’s cleaner, safer, and less ecologically impactful’.”
Rasmussen singled out Clayton and Gwinnett Counties for their exemplary water management systems.
Schulz admitted that the county had also not seriously looked into buying water from adjacent sources.
“Obviously we need to look at regional solutions,” she said, pointing out that Hard Labor Creek and Rockdale were closer to the western portion of the county that Bear Creek was intended to serve.
Walton County, which is entitled to 20 percent of the water from Lake Varner, recently started construction on its own 52 MGD, $350 million dam and reservoir at Hard Labor Creek. Oconee County also holds a 28% share in the project, which was originally submitted to the Corps as a “regional reservoir.”
Craig dismissed such an arrangement, admitting that neither he nor the county had done a serious study of the possibility.
“County commissioners are free to explore or ask me to explore [options],” he said. “I know that purchasing water from other counties may, capital M-A-Y, be affordable, but only for the short term; it’s not a good business decision for the county.”
Price tags for similar reservoir projects at Hard Labor Creek in Walton County and Hickory Log Creek in Canton County have risen dramatically since they were first proposed, raising concerns that consumers and tax payers in Newton County may be left with an overwhelming debt burden. Both those reservoirs were ushered through the permitting process by Craig.
The County has already accepted a $21 million low interest state loan from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, but it remains to be seen how the remaining costs will be covered and how that finance plan affects taxpayers and water consumers.
Craig raised the possibility of another GEFA loan, as well as a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which would allow the county to levy up to 2% additional sales tax on the existing 4%.
Water rates will undoubtedly increase. Craig is counting on the reservoir paying itself off with a growing consumer base, but others say that’s a gamble.
“Ultimately, these reservoirs put rate payers and tax payers on the hook for far into the future,” Manganiello said. “They are expensive and they may not actually produce drinking water for anyone. If you build it and nobody comes you have a serious problem.”