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Larry McSwain: Slow population growth argues against Bear Creek Reservoir
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Dear editor,

Recent population projections by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget indicate continued slow growth for Newton County. This may be bad news for our local economy, but the new numbers provide opportunity for officials to reassess the need for the Bear Creek Reservoir as well as re-evaluate other plans to accommodate growth. If our county officials respond appropriately to this new information, taxpayers and water customers will not have to pay for a $136 million dollar project that will not be needed for decades to come. Our county’s current water supply will meet our needs for many years without building the costly new lake.

The latest estimate is that Newton County will reach a population of only 195,000 people by 2050. That is a shocking reduction from past predictions of 400,000 in the county’s 2050 Plan and 361,517 claimed in the county’s Bear Creek 404 Application submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2007. And, the new projections are even lower than those last provided by the State in 2013. The most recent population numbers are obviously influenced by the extremely slow growth of Newton County in the current decade. In 2010 Newton County had 99,598 people and 103,675 in 2014 according to U.S census data. This means our county has been growing by less than 1,000 people per year in recent times.

Population size is the most important factor in determining how much water is needed now and in the future. Water demand is calculated by multiplying the total population by the percent using public water (not private wells) then by multiplying that number by the gallons used by each individual on a daily basis. If Newton County reaches a 2050 population of 361,517, as the 404 Application states, and 100 percent are served by public water, and each person uses 130 gallons per day, the county will need 47 million gallons per day (mgd). Currently, Lake Varner and City Pond can provide 27.5 mgd. By using this future demand amount and by falsely claiming a lower capacity for our current reservoirs, county attorney and water consultant Tommy Craig says we will have a water shortage of 26 mgd in 2050. If true, this would argue strongly for building the new lake. Most of our county officials apparently believe Mr. Craig’s flawed numbers because they continue to spend money on this project.

However, the recent slow growth predictions create cracks in the argument for Bear Creek. Reducing the predicted population to 195,000 drops water demand in 2050 to 25.4 mgd which means we already have enough water without building Bear Creek! Using more accurate estimates of daily water use by individuals and the percent that are on public water will reduce our future residential water demand even lower. This is not a risky theory but is validated by examining the actual amount of water used in counties with 200,000 people like Henry and Cherokee Counties. In addition, a recent report by the U.S. Geological Survey shows a trend toward lower water use in Georgia.

What about water for future commercial and industrial growth which hopefully will be greater than the predicted slow residential growth? Commercial and industrial water use is typically a small portion of total water demand, often 10% or less. Currently, all of the largest industries in Covington use less than 1 mgd. Baxter initially used about 30,000 gallons per day and that will increase to 0.5 mgd by 2022. If more water is needed for new industries at some time in the future, it can be obtained from under-utilized reservoirs in Rockdale or Walton County much cheaper than by building Bear Creek Reservoir. In fact, we already have a connection to the Rockdale system.

Despite newer and more accurate data that shows Newton County has adequate water for decades to come, our Board of Commissioners continues to waste millions of dollars in pursuit of a permit to build the $136 million Bear Creek Reservoir. Citizens must insist that the $2 million dam design contract be cancelled and that the money saved be spent to make the improvements in our current water system that experts have recommended.

Larry McSwain