Reser­voir plans stir con­tro­versy

Pub­lic meet­ing full of heated de­bate

The Covington News - - Front Page - By Rachel Oswald

A pub­lic in­for­ma­tion meet­ing Thurs­day night on the county’s plans to con­struct the Bear Creek Reser­voir de­gen­er­ated into per­sonal at­tacks on the county at­tor­ney from au­di­ence mem­bers with a per­sonal stake in the project.

The well-at­tended meet­ing was held by the New­ton County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers at the His­toric Court­house in or­der to ful­fill the pub­lic com­ment process the U.S. Army Corp of En­gi­neers re­quires be­fore it will is­sue the en­vi­ron­men­tal 404 per­mit nec­es­sary for con­struc­tion of the reser­voir to be­gin. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Corp of En­gi­neers were on hand at the meet­ing to ob­serve the pub­lic’s re­ac­tion to the project.

County At­tor­ney Tommy Craig, who af­ter steer­ing New­ton County through the per­mit­ting process for Lake Varner in the 1980s gained a name for him­self through­out the South­east as an ex­pert on the per­mit­ting of reser­voirs, lead the meet­ing with a pre­sen­ta­tion on the his­tory of the Bear Creek Reser­voir project, its pur­pose, an anal­y­sis of al­ter­na­tives to build­ing the reser­voir and an over­view of plans for en­vi­ron­men­tal mit­i­ga­tion.

Craig said he ex­pected the state reg­u­la­tory process would prob­a­bly take an­other 12 to 15 months be­fore a per­mit for the project could be ex­pected.

Hal Bryan, the pres­i­dent and se­nior ecol­o­gist with Eco-South Inc., as­sisted Craig in his pre­sen­ta­tion by de­scrib­ing what en­vi­ron­men­tal mit­i­ga­tion steps the county would likely have to un­der­take if it was granted a 404 per­mit.

Bryan said the county would need to cre­ate the equiv­a­lent of 136 acres of wet­land to mit­i­gate against the en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fects of the reser­voir. Bryan’s re­search in­cluded 10 sites where the county could pur­sue mit­i­ga­tion ef­forts.

“Reser­voirs are not a nat­u­ral oc­cur­rence,” Bryan said.

Af­ter the pre­sen­ta­tion Craig opened the floor up to ques­tions from the au­di­ence, of which there were many. Nearly all of the ques­tions Craig fielded were of a neg­a­tive na­ture and dealt with the county’s de­ci­sion to build the reser­voir at all, at Bear Creek in par­tic­u­lar and on Craig’s in­volve­ment with the project. Nearly ev­ery­one who raised a ques­tion had a per­sonal stake in the project.

“I am used to per­sonal at­tacks and I don’t guess that I get as ex­cited about them as some peo­ple might,” Craig said Fri­day.

Plans to build the reser­voir be­gan back in 1996 but due largely to bu­reau­cratic red tape and a failed col­lab­o­ra­tion at­tempt with Jasper County the project has stalled.

Weigh­ing al­ter­na­tives

The pro­posed site of the reser­voir is di­rectly down­stream from Henderson Mill Road Bridge where it crosses Bear Creek in the south­east­ern end of the county. Once com­plete the reser­voir will en­com­pass 1,242 acres.

Other im­pacts of the project in­clude the flood­ing of 10 res­i­dences and por­tions of Mace­do­nia Road, Gaithers Road, Ben­ton Road, Old Post Road and Henderson Mill Road.

The dam for the reser­voir would be 1,450 feet long, 62 feet high and 350 feet wide at the base. At full pool el­e­va­tion the reser­voir would sup­ply ap­prox­i­mately 28 mil­lion gal­lons per day.

Craig said Thurs­day night the reser­voir was con­structed with the in­tent of meet­ing the needs of a pro­jected pop­u­la­tion of 361,517 in the county by 2050. Ac­cord­ing to the county’s cal­cu­la­tions such a pop­u­la­tion would need 47 MGD. The county has a cur­rent wa­ter sup­ply of 21.25 MGD.

In con­sid­er­ing where to build a reser­voir to ad­dress the county’s fu­ture wa­ter needs, the BOC con­sid­ered four pos­si­bil­i­ties: Snap­ping Shoals Creek, Lit­tle River I above Shoal Creek, Lit­tle River II be­low Shoal Creek and Bear Creek at Henderson Mill Road, which they ul­ti­mately set­tled on.

Ac­cord­ing to the pre­sen­ta­tion given by Craig, Snap­ping Shoals was dis­carded as a pos­si­bil­ity be­cause it would have meant flood­ing 189 homes, sev­eral roads and mul­ti­ple util­ity lines.

Lit­tle River I above Shoal Creek was scrapped as a pos­si­bil­ity be­cause the reser­voir would have been built up­stream of sewer plants and in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment and would have been al­most en­tirely lo­cated inside Morgan County. It also would have yielded only 18 MGD – 7.5 MGD short of the county’s pro­jected need. Lit­tle River II be­low Shoal Creek was re­jected by the county for the same rea­sons as Lit­tle River I.

“I’ve done my home­work. I know what I’m do­ing and noth­ing I’m hear­ing makes me think we’ve made a wrong de­ci­sion,” Craig said Fri­day on the de­ci­sion to lo­cate the reser­voir at Bear Creek.

Sam M. Hay III ques­tioned why the county didn’t sim­ply draw wa­ter di­rectly out of the South River. Hay claimed that do­ing so would have “zero im­pact” on the sur­round­ing land.

Craig re­sponded to Hay’s com­ments by say­ing the county didn’t con­sider with­draw­ing wa­ter from the South River be­cause much of the wa­ter is the waste wa­ter DeKalb County pro­duces and would re­quire con­sid­er­able ef­fort to pu­rify for drink­ing pur­poses. Craig added that DeKalb County was cur­rently con­sid­er­ing a plan to re-use the wa­ter it cur­rently re­turns to the South River.

Should such a plan go into ef­fect, Craig said the county could not rely on a steady sup­ply of wa­ter com­ing from the South River. Craig added that in times of drought the county would have no re­serve stor­age ca­pac­ity to fall back on if it with­drew its wa­ter di­rectly from the South River as pro­posed by Hay.

Hoke Thomas with Thomas Brothers Hy­dro, Inc. also spoke in fa­vor of pump­ing wa­ter di­rectly from the South River. In June, 2004 Thomas un­suc­cess­fully pe­ti­tioned the BOC to use his com­pany for the con­struc­tion of a drink­ing wa­ter fil­tra­tion plant to clean wa­ter pumped from the South River, ac­cord­ing to min­utes from the meet­ing.

Thomas ques­tioned the county’s need for any more stor­age ca­pac­ity in build­ing the Bear Creek Reser­voir.

“My un­der­stand­ing is there’s noth­ing spe­cial about Thomas Brothers Hy­dro fa­cil­ity,” Craig said. “No­body wants [the project] right now be­cause they’re afraid of the qual­ity of wa­ter.”

Res­i­dents from Jasper County, in­clud­ing Jasper County Chair­man Jack Bernard, were also on hand to ex­press frus­tra­tion with the project Thurs­day night.

“The sense I got from the peo­ple from Jasper County who at­tended that meet­ing and were neg­a­tive about the project is that they would like to find a way to get back in and be par­tic­i­pants of the project,” Craig said Fri­day.

Though there were con­sid­er­able dis­cus­sions in 2003 of Jasper County par­tic­i­pat­ing with New­ton County on the reser­voir project, the Jasper County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers re­jected a part­ner­ship agree­ment with New­ton County in 2004. In July, 2004, the New­ton BOC voted to move for­ward with the project with­out Jasper County.

“I don’t know why they backed out but I think there was an over­rid­ing sense of mis­trust on the part of some peo­ple,” Craig said. “They thought [the part­ner­ship agree­ment] we had of­fered was un­fair. On the other hand I think that what we had of­fered was more than fair and as far as we could go.”

Ac­cord­ing to Craig, the part­ner­ship agree­ment the BOC of­fered to Jasper County would have al­lowed Jasper County to pay for its share of the land nec­es­sary for the reser­voir at the land prices New­ton County had pur­chased it for 10 years ear­lier.

“We couldn’t have of­fered them a bet­ter deal with out just giv­ing them money,” Craig said,

To­wards the end of Thurs­day’s meet­ing Em­met Denby, the sole home­owner to con­tinue to re­sist the county’s ef­forts to ac­quire his land for the reser­voir and a for­mer can­di­date in 2004 for county chair­man, was thrown out of the meet­ing by two sher­iff’s deputies when he re­fused to sur­ren­der the mi­cro­phone af­ter Craig chose not to call on him for the last ques­tion of the evening.

County Chair­man Aaron Varner, or­dered him es­corted from the meet­ing.

Bobby Sig­man, a for­mer Cov­ing­ton coun­cil­man and peren­nial po­lit­i­cal can­di­date, ques­tioned Craig on why the county does not yet have any cost pro­jec­tions for the reser­voir.

“You are ob­li­gated to the tax­payer to tell us how much the reser­voir is go­ing to cost,” Sig­man said.

Craig re­sponded that a full cost-anal­y­sis for Lake Varner was not avail­able when the reser­voir was first con­sid­ered in the 1980s but that ev­ery­one now agrees the county was right to move for­ward with the project in light of what it has meant to the county in times of drought.

“Wa­ter in this part of Ge­or­gia is suf­fi­ciently scarce and suf­fi­ciently valu­able that we’re just go­ing to have to pay the cost within rea­son,” Craig said.

On Fri­day Craig said though cost es­ti­mates for the project are not yet avail­able, the sin­gle largest ex­pense as­so­ci­ated with the project, land ac­qui­si­tion, had al­ready been taken care of.

“No­body knows ex­actly what it will cost us to de­velop this wa­ter sup­ply,” Craig said. “The thing that we do know is that it’s not go­ing to get any cheaper and that when we get it done we’ll have some­thing that will be highly mar­ketable. What­ever por­tion of it we don’t need we’ll be able to sell.”

Mandi Singer/The Cov­ing­ton News

Soon to dis­ap­pear: The wa­ters of Bear Creek rush over rocks just down­stream from the Henderson Mill Road bridge. Once the Bear Creek Reser­voir goes for­ward, this area and sur­round­ing wet­lands will be sub­merged.

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