Georgia’s Mulhollands: Newton County Genesis
William Mulholland helped engineer the infamous interbasin transfer that moved water more than two-hundred miles from Owens River Valley farmers to Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley in 1913. The fictional movie Chinatown (1974) was based on the actual water scheme that benefited real-estate speculators who dreamed of turning the sleepy southern California region into a suburban and agricultural paradise.
The real Mulholland – a self-taught engineer – successfully watered Los Angeles but he was not infallible in a pre-regulatory era. His water grab sparked the “Owens Valley War” in the 1920s where aggrieved farmers targeted the LA aqueduct with bullets and dynamite. Then, his poorly engineered St. Francis Dam collapsed in 1928, taking the lives of nearly 500 people. Mulholland – his name tarnished – died in 1935 after serving as the head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for decades.
Georgians continue to write their own water and power history. While not quite the same as the Golden State’s Mulholland or Roman Polanski’s film, “a small universe” of lawyers, engineers, former state employees, and associated professionals exert considerable influence over natural resources in the Peach State. (Here is a flyer from one 2007 meeting.)
The Basics: There are many Bear Creek Reservoirs – both real and imagined – in Georgia. The Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority currently operates one in Jackson County. The proposed projects include the troubled south Fulton County and the Newton County versions.
Newton County’s proposed reservoir may one day fill behind a 62-foot tall, 1,450-foot long, and 350-foot wide dam stretching across one of Georgia’s Bear Creeks. Because this creek cannot fill up a 1,242 acre reservoir by itself to satisfy a possible 42 million gallon maximum daily withdrawal, this project will employ a pumped-storage (off-stream) water supply scheme. Up to 35 million gallons of water per day could be pumped from the Alcovy River – which is a vein near the heart of the upper Ocmulgee and Altamaha River basins – into the reservoir.
The Objective: The Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) will own, operate, and collect revenue from the reservoir with assistance from the Newton County Water Resources Department. The BOC will have the power sell between 28 and 42 million gallons of raw or treated water per day to the Newton County Water & Sewer Authority and any other entity. For example, the BOC could transfer water to Atlanta – only forty miles away – “as a revenue making machine.” However, Bear Creek’s current proposals do not discuss the $40M to $90M required for water transmission and additional water treatment plants that turn raw water into drinking water.
The brain: William Thomas “Tommy” Craig wears many hats. For example, Craig has served as Newton County’s county attorney since the 1970s. Craig also sits on the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District’s board, though Newton is not in that District or within the Atlanta Regional Commission’s boundary. Craig also served as the county’s industrial authority attorney and finalized the inducement agreement that landed a major bio-medical business – Baxter International – in April 2012. And finally, Craig has become Georgia’s – and apparently South Carolina’s Woodruff-Roebuck Water Authority’s – go-to consultant to navigate the water supply reservoir planning and permitting process.
The Reservoir Backstory: In the 1980s and 1990s, Craig helped the county navigate construction and permitting of the Lake Varner and Cornish Creek Water Treatment project. County leaders – tested by drought in the 1980s, anxious for future development, and familiar with the laborious permitting process – were ready to embark on another water supply reservoir. They began purchasing land along Bear Creek in the 1990s. At the same time, the county also started to assemble the Stanton Springs industrial property – now operated by the Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties – along Interstate 20.
Permits: Today, all major water supply reservoir projects must secure a Section 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect communities and environmental functions – including wetlands – according to the terms of the Clean Water Act. Over the last two decades the Corps’ reservoir permitting program in Georgia has evolved considerably. Craig has been an active applicant’s-advocate throughout this process.
Bear Creek: In March 2000, Craig submitted Newton County’s first Bear Creek Reservoir 404 permit application. But within a few months, the Corps requested that the county resubmit the application for a variety of reasons. For example, the Corps had been reviewing a number of water supply reservoir applications and discovered that two unrelated but geographically proximate reservoir proposals near Canton had used the same population projection figures and data to justify the reservoirs’ need. The Corps also requested that Newton County planners use newly available 2000 census data. With all of this in mind, Newton County submitted another 404 permit application for Bear Creek to the Corps in 2007. The application is pending and a permit has not been issued.
Recurring Conflict: Upon close examination, water supply reservoir partners – usually some combination of city, county, and water authority representatives – appear to have rocky relationships. The most well-known example is still unfolding between Hall County and the City of Gainesville regarding the Glades Farm Reservoir, a project Craig worked on until the county commissioners “cut ties” and effectively terminated his contract. Another sad story involves Hickory Log Creek Reservoir where the City of Canton – burdened with a growing-debt load – is attempting extract itself from a partnership with Cobb County – Marietta Water Authority. Craig served as this reservoir’s project coordinator.
Good fences make for good neighbors? Between 2003 and 2005, Jasper County and Newton County commissioners attempted to negotiate a partnership in the Bear Creek project. However, a vocal group of Jasper citizens – who did not like the fact that Bear Creek’s true cost and ownership was hidden from tax-payers – compelled elected officials to withdrawal from the negotiations in January 2004. Incensed voters made sure reservoir opponents – including Jack Bernard and Mary Patrick – got elected to the Jasper County Commission in the following years.
In 2009, a number of Jasper and Newton county residents continued to criticize the Bear Creek proposal. Some expressed concern about hidden costs and tenuous justification, others were angry about losing their property to condemnation, and one identified the project as an amenity lake poised to benefit real estate developers and consultants.
Other problems: First, no money. When Craig’s team talked about the project in 2009, the stated project cost was still vaguely in the tens-of-millions. Planners now expect the pump-storage infrastructure, dam, and reservoir – which will not be connected to any municipal water supply pipes or existing treatment facilities – to cost $62.7M. This is surely a low-ball estimate when similar project costs – like those for Hard Labor Creek (HLC) – are moving targets and have increased by as much as 800 percent.
Another problem: No customers. Craig’s 404 permit application anticipated more than 360,000 people would live in Newton County by 2050. However, as one Covington News reporter noted in 2010 and other data belie, the Great Recession has brought residential growth “to a standstill.”
For example, population and building permit data do not justify the need for this proposed reservoir. According to data obtained from the Georgia Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget and the U.S. Census Bureau, annual population growth in Newton County began to decline after 2006. Between 2007 and 2010, Newton County’s annual population growth dropped precipitously from 5,082 to only 14 new residents per year. Building permits issued for single-family homes in Newton County also declined dramatically from 2,115 in 2005 to only 52 in 2011. Indeed, one real estate expert placed Newton County on the edge of metro-Atlanta’s “ring of death.”
What Recession? With no money and no customers, the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority awarded the Newton County BOC a $21M construction loan from the Governor’s Water Supply Program (GWSP) in August 2012. The money will pay for the dam; it will not pay for the pump-storage or water treatment infrastructure. But, according to Craig, “If you could get those terms on a home, you’d probably be out buying a mansion.” We should remember that free money and an uncritical belief in growth are what got us into the Great Recession in the first place.
And, it is important to note that counties pay for reservoirs by incurring massive debt, and they rely on a growing population and new customers to pay for the projects. If the new customers do not materialize, the existing water customers and all county taxpayers are on the hook to pay for the debt. It’s also important to note that “need” is a key cornerstone of the 404 permit process. Permits should only be issued when there is a real need, and if population is at a standstill there is no justification for a permit.
So why is this project moving forward? It’s useful here to be aware of another GWSP award recipient: Hard Labor Creek (HLC) in neighboring Walton and Oconee Counties.
First, these two reservoirs are farther along than others in the state. All of the land has been acquired for Bear Creek but no permits have been issued. HLC (another project Craig consulted on) is just the opposite: the project has a 404 permit but has not acquired all the necessary land.
Second: Economic development. In an interesting twist, both the HLC and the Newton County GWSP applications cited the arrival of Baxter International as a sign that Oconee, Walton, and Newton counties need to increase water supplies. According to Newton County’s GWSP application, the availability of and “continued assurances” that the county will have adequate future water supplies “allows Newton County to be competitive in attracting major industry” to Georgia. Furthermore: “This was recently demonstrated by the announcement of Baxter International Inc.’s decision to locate in Stanton Springs,” and to invest more than $1 billion over the next five years and potentially generate 1,500 jobs. (But the Walton County school board was not happy discover – after-the-fact – that Craig’s Baxter inducement deal included a school tax abatement.)
Third: The potential for future interbasin transfers of water from the Oconee and Ocmulgee River basins into the Metro District and the Chattahoochee River Basin. Both of these GEFA sponsored reservoirs are located in the Altamaha River basin – the largest basin wholly contained within the state of Georgia. In other words, these reservoirs could help Georgia avoid interstate water wars, but will also increase the prospect of intrastate water wars.
It’s a wrap: The Mulhollands of Los Angeles and Georgia learned long ago that individual determination alone was not enough to make crops, houses, and business grow. Water – a lot of it and preferably of the highest quality – has always been a key ingredient to all economic activity including consultants’ behavior. Friends in the right place at the right time can also help move mountains because new water supply projects grow debt, particularly in the absence of paying customers. As such, financial assistance now rains down from state government institutions with access to lines of credit now closed to local governments struggling to generate revenue to keep the lights on, schools open, trash off the curb, and police cruisers cruising.
In the end – in LA or ATL – water has always flowed to money, even when it didn’t need to.
NOTE: This narrative utilized publically available documents from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority and Environmental Protection Division (obtained via Georgia Open Records Act request), and mainstream media reports.