On Sept. 28, the Newton Board of Commissioners (BOC) heard a presentation about the Bear Creek Reservoir Project by consultants Necholus Ogden and Dr. Richard Whiteside. Ogden is a retired Corps of Engineers executive and Whiteside is a PhD-level environmental consultant experienced in 404 permitting and mitigation. Their report was largely an overview of previous studies and an assessment of the status of the Bear Creek 404 Application.
The two consultants further sealed the coffin of the Bear Creek Reservoir. They said it would be best to start over completely with a new 404 application rather than try to resurrect the old application. The consultants estimated the project would cost $90-140 million plus the cost of a water treatment plant. However, Ogden said that without a demonstrated need for the reservoir, no permit would be issued by the Corps of Engineers. With slower population growth and lower per capita water consumption rates, Newton County cannot show a need for more water for another 28 years.
When a future need for more water can be demonstrated, to get a 404 Permit Bear Creek Reservoir would have to be the least environmentally damaging option for meeting that need, and ecological and cultural impacts mitigated as required by the 2008 rules. That means that mitigation credits would likely have to be bought from existing mitigation banks and that the land purchased by former county attorney Tommy Craig may not be acceptable for mitigation. That pretty much means the county spent $5.4 million for 1,009 acres of mitigation land that is not useful for that purpose. In addition, Dr. Whiteside reported that the county could not sell the mitigation credits because there is no unmet demand in our region.
Whiteside and Ogden did a rough comparison of the cost- benefit of building a new reservoir verses the cost of structural improvements to our current water system. They estimated it would cost 2 or 3 times more per million gallons of water to build Bear Creek than improve our existing system. And, with improvements, our current system is projected to provide adequate water for the next 28 years (2045-2050 according to other experts).
Hopefully, this is the last "study" of the Bear Creek Project that taxpayers will have to fund. The BOC should officially abandon the project so that the landowners with "first right of refusal" clauses in their contracts can buy back their land now if they wish, and not have to wait until Jan. 1, 2020. All unneeded land should be put up for sale in order to recover some of the $25 million wasted by former officials. Put it up for sale, not give it away as recently happened! Lastly, but of immediate importance, is to start construction of the improvements to our existing water system.
It’s time for the public to remind our Commissioners once again to stop spending our money on the Bear Creek boondoggle.