The Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) held a lengthy work session November 5, 2014 to hear a progress report on the Bear Creek Reservoir. Recent criticism of the project by federal agencies, several state environmental groups and local residents generated a call for an update on the project.
Water supply expert and county attorney Tommy Craig provided an hour long slide presentation to justify the project that included power point slides, a display of his impressive resume and that of his chief consulting engineer, and because of global warming.
The Chairman, County Manager and four members of the Board of Commissioners were apparently so impressed by the presentation that they did not ask any questions of Mr. Craig, even though they are the ones who ultimately must decide the fate of this project. Their silence was troubling indeed given the enormous cost and uncertainty about the actual need for this new reservoir.
Commissioner Nancy Schulz did ask Mr. Craig the big question which was how much has the county paid for the Bear Creek Project so far? Mr. Craig said he did not know and Mrs. Schulz responded that the county’s accounting office calculated that the project costs were approximately $21.7 million since the late 1990s. While that number needs further confirmation, it is the best estimate that has been offered to date. In fact, previously requests for that information have gone unanswered by county officials.
Mr. Craig’s presentation concluded that the reservoir should be constructed in the near future despite lingering questions about the actual need for Bear Creek and what alternative water sources ought to be investigated. However, as Newton County residents who have followed this debate closely, we ask that no additional money be spent on the Bear Creek Project until the BOC fulfills their lawful responsibility to fully evaluate it. The BOC should immediately take the following actions:
1. The BOC must become fully engaged with the management of this project by moving all decision making into the County Chairman’s office. County Manager Tom Garrett is a registered engineer and should be capable of providing the oversight and cost control that has obviously been missing since the start of the Bear Creek Project.
2. The BOC should order an independent audit of all expenditures on the Bear Creek Project from inception to present. The possibility that over $21 million has already been spent is horrifying to taxpayers and water customers. An audit needs to identify exactly how much has been spent, to whom were payments made and what county budget accounts have been used to pay for this project in the past. This is essential to restore a measure of credibility and transparency to the BOC and to this project.
3. Conduct an independent third party assessment of the future water demand for the county up to 2050. The $100 million cost of the Bear Creek Reservoir and related facilities can be paid only if it is built when needed and not decades before. Current demand estimates are suspect due to the financial benefits that could accrue to those involved in promoting, designing and building the new reservoir.
4. If an objective analysis shows a genuine need for additional water supplies, the BOC should thoroughly evaluate all alternatives from a cost-benefit standpoint and based on their impact on taxpayers and water customers. County commissioners need to look closely at what structural changes, if any, could be made to Lake Varner and City Pond so they could produce more water. In addition, obtaining future water from Rockdale and/or Walton County should be considered because both counties have excess supply. That will be especially true of Walton County when their Hard Labor Creek Reservoir fills in 2017. Our needs are not immediate so there is plenty of time to study alternatives that could be significantly cheaper and more advantageous for our future economic development.
5. Obviously, the first priority to increase our overall water supply is to treat and deliver all that is available in Lake Varner. Therefore, the BOC should review the $24 million in corrective actions needed at the Cornish Creek Water Treatment plant. The recent Krebs study says it cannot produce the 25 million gallons per day (mgd) it was supposed to provide after its last upgrade. If it can produce only 18 mgd now, as Mr. Craig claims, the county should consider how to correct the problems and how to recover costs from the engineers and construction company that designed and built a flawed facility.
6. The Master Water Plan provided by Krebs Engineering should be evaluated by all local government partners such as the various cities and the Newton County Water and Sewerage authority. Deficiencies in the $240,000 plan should be identified and corrected at no additional cost to the county. The plan’s recommendation to close the Williams Street Treatment Plant should be revisited.
If these steps are taken, county officials will be in a position to make a responsible, informed and cost conscious decision about the future of the Bear Creek Project. If this is not done, the BOC will be dependent on the advice of those whose motives may be their own monetary gain. And, taxpayers and water customers will continue to be the victims of wasteful spending and poor decision making by county officials.