Issue Brief: Dawson Forest Reservoir
Shoal Creek, an Etowah River tributary, runs through the City of Atlanta’s 10,000 acre tract in Dawson Forest. Recently, Republic Resources Inc. planned to partner with the Etowah Water and Sewer Authority to buy the entire Dawson tract from Atlanta and then build a 2,000 acre reservoir on Shoal Creek surrounded by 8,000 acres of “protected wilderness.” The reservoir would ideally produce 100 million gallons per day for Dawson County and metro Atlanta communities, as well as Cherokee, Forsyth, Paulding, and Pickens counties. The Dawson Forest reservoir, however, remains a bad deal for political, environmental, and economic reasons. But like many things in Georgia, the Dawson Forest plan has many ethical questions too.
Joe Cook, the Coosa Riverkeeper, has laid out compelling reasons to explain why Dawson Forest remains a bad deal regardless of who builds it. First, the proposal would involve moving water from the Etowah River (which is in the Coosa River basin) into the Chattahoochee River basin which would constitute an illegal interbasin transfer of water into the metro Atlanta water district. Second, the real estate implosion has deflated land values and the Atlanta stands to lose a lot of money on any land deal. Third, penny for penny, reservoirs cost more per gallon than water conservation and efficiency measures. And fourth, the reservoir will eliminate habitat for endangered species.
Now the ethics. Gerald “Jerry” Dawes of Republic Resources Inc. was hatching the reservoir plan before Judge Magnuson’s Lake Lanier ruling. Republic originally sought out the Etowah water authority because, according to existing state law, the only way private interests could build dams and reservoirs for public water supply was through a partnership with an existing municipal authority. But after the 2010 legislative session got underway, Republic blindsided the Etowah authority, abruptly terminated their relationship, and became a competitor. Here’s why.
According to fantastic AJC investigative journalism, Sen. Chip Pearson specifically introduced Senate Bill 321 to make it easier for outfits like Republic to partner directly with the state to build reservoirs. Pearson’s SB 321 would have streamlined the permitting process, cut local water authorities out of reservoir deals, steered profit to companies like Republic, and effectively privatized public water supplies. To further muddy the ethical waters, SB 321 looked downright self-serving given the now transparent relationship between Sen. Pearson of Dawsonville, his private lobbying-business partner (Craig Lesser of Pendleton Consulting), and his partner’s personal client (Republic’s Dawes). SB 321 had a robust 2010 legislative life-cycle, but died when the session ended.
Over the course of the following week, Pearson filed paperwork to run for re-election, defended SB 321, and then announced his decision not to seek office in 2010 on account of his “responsibility and dedication to his family.”
Regardless of SB 321’s history, the Dawson Forest reservoir proposal will inevitably continue to surface in the future. This reservoir did not make it into Governor Perdue’s Water Contingency Task Force’s recommendations for meeting water supply needs in the wake of Judge Magnuson’s Lake Lanier ruling. The Task Force concluded that most new reservoir projects were simply too expensive and would take too long to come on line. So, the Task Force advocated “no regret” conservation measures and ultimately influenced the unparalleled Water Stewardship Act now awaiting Perdue’s signature. However, the Task Force’s technical advisors included the imaginary Dawson Forest reservoir (and others such as South Fulton’s Bear Creek and Hall County’s Glades) for evaluation by Task Force members (see this appendix and use the search function) in case the region needs new water supply options after 2012.