In the middle of the complex landfill controversy, the Bear Creek Reservoir and associated water issues have been largely ignored by county officials. But, they have not gone away despite. No public meetings have been scheduled with the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority (NCWSA) or with city officials to formally discuss the important water issues brought to light by the county’s master water plan, NCWSA’s Lake Varner safe yield analysis and lake level management problems at Lake Varner. After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, one would think that county officials would be anxious to hear the results of these studies and implement solutions to the problems that were identified.
The lack of oversight of the $240,000 master water plan and the misleading statements made about the safe yield analysis and water levels at Lake Varner have created significant credibility problems for the county, and caused additional expense for the NCWSA and its many customers. The authority had no choice but to investigate the county’s claims about the inadequacy of the current water supply and the need for Bear Creek Reservoir. The NCWSA studies have verified that Lake Varner’s ability to provide water has not been reduced despite frequent claims to the contrary by county attorney Tommy Craig. The only problem identified at Lake Varner is that it has not been kept full enough to insure adequate water in an extended drought period. In fact, the lake has been allowed to fall to very low levels the last two summers despite the 214 days in 2013 and 148 days in 2014 when Alcovy River flows would have allowed pumping to refill the lake. Mismanagement of lake levels is a serious issue that must be remedied before the summer months.
No reasons have been offered to the public by the county water department for their failure to run the pumps and keep the lake fuller. But, the low level of Lake Varner was used by both Mr. Craig and Mr. Nord at a November 5, 2014 BOC meeting to imply that Bear Creek Reservoir is needed for an additional water supply. Their statements and photographs of Lake Varner at low pool were completely misleading to the BOC and the public. One or both men knew the lake level was low, not because of increased public water use or reduced lake capacity, but because no pumping from the river had occurred for the previous seven months. This was a misleading assessment of our current water supply that must be cleared up.
While our raw water supply has been proven adequate, the delivery of treated water may be a problem. In his address to the BOC on November 5, 2014, Mr. Craig stated that existing county water treatment plants cannot produce their designed amounts of finished drinking water. He stated that the Cornish Creek Treatment Plant can produce 18 million gallons per day (mgd) and that the Williams Street plant could provide only 2.7 mgd for a total of 20.7 mgd. The Master Water Plan also claimed that on peak days the county needs 22.4 mgd of treated water. If these are amounts are correct, simple math indicates the county may not be able to deliver enough drinking water on heavy use days when demand exceeds treatment capacity.
The Master Water Plan also stated that the county does not have sufficient emergency electrical power to deliver the amount of water the county needs on a daily basis. The emergency generators at Cornish Creek Treatment Plant were said to be able to power pumps large enough to deliver only 9 mgd of treated water. That could be an immediate problem during a power outage since the Master Water Plan says the average daily demand by Newton and Walton Counties together is 17.4 mgd. County officials need to assure the public that they can deliver sufficient water in case a storm event interrupts electrical power for several days.
Another concern mentioned by the master plan is whether there are adequate safety measures in place to protect public health at the Williams Street Treatment Plant. Authors of the plan found that components necessary for the proper operation and backwashing of the water filters were missing or inoperable which could allow contamination of finished water. At the time of their inspection, engineers also found that the Williams Street facility used a gaseous form of chlorine to treat water but had no scrubbers or containment system in place in case of leakage from the chlorine gas cylinders. Chlorine gas is a deadly poison so leaks pose a threat to staff members and in a worse-case scenario could affect those in nearby schools and businesses. The public needs to be assured that these deficiencies have been remedied.
County officials continue to march forward with the $136 million Bear Creek Project despite the growing consensus that it is not needed for years to come. But, they appear unwilling to tackle major problems with existing facilities that could limit our supply of treated water or impact public health in the immediate future. As long as we allow our county officials to keep their heads in the sand, the real water problems will remain unresolved and our county tax dollars will continue to be misused.