The Bear Creek Water Supply Reservoir project has been a hot topic for its questions of validity and expenses. But the overlying issue is the county’s water supply. We begin to take a look at some of those questions, and where the county will go next concerning its water.
Why did the county start working on the Bear Creek project?
At the time the Bear Creek Water Supply Reservoir was first proposed, Newton County was one of the fastest growing counties in the country, increasing by 38 percent between 2000 and 2010 (according to the U.S. Census). The 2008 recession changed all that. The only numbers that skyrocketed in Newton County were unemployment and foreclosures rates.
What was the problem Bear Creek was supposed to solve?
As part of the studies done in 1989 for what is now Lake Varner Reservoir, analysis ranked Bear Creek Reservoir as the county’s second-best alternative to Lake Varner. Using 2000 U.S. Census figures and population predictions from the Georgia Office of Budget and Planning, the Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) began the long process of applying for permits to construct the reservoir on Bear Creek to meet projected demands on the water supply.
The county never revised the population figures used in the original project plan. In 2006, the Georgia Environmental Protection District (EPD) wrote a validation letter supporting the county’s need for a reservoir.
The Governor’s Water Supply Program awarded the county a $21 million loan for the project.
The county proceeded to purchase land that would be needed to mitigate the impact the reservoir would have on area streams, wetlands and habitats when Bear Creek Reservoir was completed.
What changed and why was the project held up by the Corps of Engineers?
Beginning in 2012, the Army Corps of Engineers began to question population predictions being used by county. The Newton County Water and Sewer Authority determined in a draft of its master water plan that the need for the reservoir no longer existed and money would be better spent improving existing water supply facilities.
The Army Corps of Engineers rejected the county’s 404 Permit application four times, most recently in August, because the Corps found the predicted population figures were nearly 50 percent less than the original number estimated and the plan to mitigate environmental impact on streams, wetlands and habitat inadequate. The reservoir project would impact 136 acres of wetlands and 24 miles of stream.
The Corps asked about existing studies from various agencies – studies that the county had not yet provided to the Corps – showing a lack of urgency for needing the reservoir, adequate current water supplies and more urgently needed improvements and repairs for existing water facilities.
Where does that leave Newton County?
As of the end of 2014, an estimated $21.7 million has been spent on studies, mitigation property, legal and consultant fees and permit applications. Of that, an estimated $16.7 million was spent on buying land for mitigation.
One study by the Newton County Water and Sewer Authority (NCWSA) “found that a wiser use of funds would be to repair/upgrade Newton County’s existing treatment facilities,” according to the Corps. Those improvements would cost an estimated $24.1 million.
Commissioner Nancy Schulz, District 3, said the BOC’s motion on October 20 wasn’t to kill the project. “It was to shelf it and shift our expenditures to our existing infrastructure.”
“We’ve had all kinds of studies done that we’ve paid for,” said Schulz. “Our water resources director, our consecutive water customers, like the City of Covington, and the Water and Sewer Authority, need to look at all the information we have from all the studies that have been done and see what pieces are missing.
“We should not order any more money to be spent until we know the gaps,” she said.
District 5 Commissioner Levie Maddox agreed.
“Our professional staff and engineering contractors will focus on significant upgrades to our current water resources: Lake Varner Reservoir and the Cornish Creek and Williams Street facilities,” he said.
Chairman Keith Ellis wants the county to look at the data from Lake Varner using a bathymetric survey before moving forward.
The Newton County Water Resources is reviewing data from Lake Varner and the county’s water treatment facilities to see what’s next.
District 2 Commissioner Lanier Sims felt that communication of that data is an important step that must be taken. During Tuesday’s meeting he requested that citizens, the BOC, water authority and others get together in a sort of “water summit”
“I feel our energy is best served in improving Lake Varner,” Sims said. “Once we know what we have there and what improvements we need there, I think we can reconvene and decide how we want to move forward with Bear Creek.
“Are we going to stop it forever, or stop it for 10 years? Those are the decisions we have to make,” he said.
The decision to suspend activities on the Bear Creek project and concentrate on improving existing water facilities should make Newton County citizens “feel safe that we will achieve the goal of an abundant, safe water supply to meet our needs for the future,” Maddox said. “We will find the most effective, cost-efficient method in meeting this goal.”