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Water Authority moves on Bear Creek
Newton County saves thousands as the Water and Sewer Authority steps in on Lake Varner studies

The Newton County Water and Sewer Authority will carry out two key studies on Lake Varner and the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir, preempting a bid by Schnabel Engineering that would have cost the county tens of thousands of dollars.

The authority sent a letter to the Board of Commissioners Monday informing it of its decision to fund and contract the work, some of which County Attorney Tommy Craig had recommended Schnabel carry out.

"As your largest wholesale customer representing 23,000 water and sewer customers, we feel obligated to assist the County in getting updated, fresh information on the water resources available to the County," the letter read. "As a citizen pointed out, we could gain increased credibility if this analysis is performed by a qualified water expert that is removed from the current discussion."

At Tuesday’s BOC meeting, commissioners voted to table the safe yield analysis indefinitely, with Craig calling for a meeting with the county's wholesale customers in the near future.

Schnabel had proposed carrying out bathymetric and aerial surveys and a safe yield analysis on Lake Varner at a cost of $86,000 to the county.

The Water and Sewer Authority has contracted W.K. Dickson as a consultant on safe yield analyses for Lake Varner and Bear Creek for $25,000. Mike Hopkins, executive director of the authority, said the authority may or may not order a bathymetric survey later.

The authority’s move was welcomed by critics of the Bear Creek project who asserted that Schnabel had a financial stake in the outcome of the study because it has already been awarded a $2 million contract to engineer the proposed dam, which has been justified based on projected need and Lake Varner’s insufficient output. Schnabel and Craig have worked together on other reservoir projects, including Hard Labor Creek in Walton County.

Hopkins characterized the commissioners' stated intention to reach out as a step forward.

“In the past there hadn’t been a whole lot of communication,” said Hopkins, adding that the authority’s intention was to help take pressure off the county and increase transparency and cooperation.

“We’ve got experts, and we’re familiar with a consultant that’s never worked for us and we can get them to do a nonbiased opinion and then make that information available to the people,” he continued. “We’re looking out for [the public].”

“This is really important,” he concluded. “This is about the source of our water and how it will affect rates…I’m not going to tell you whether the reservoir needs to be built or not because all the facts aren’t there.”

Craig said the more detailed aerial and bathymetric surveys would yield more precise results, adding that the two survey packages were not comparable. He also defended his collaboration with Schnabel, saying they are the best in the field and it was only natural he would turn to them on multiple projects. 

The proposed Bear Creek Reservoir, championed by Craig, who is also acting as a water consultant on the project, has been a source of contention between backers who say Bear Creek is needed to meet the county’s growing water needs, and critics who question the motives and timing behind it. The safe yield analyses should determine how much water can be drawn during peak drought.