As the year comes to a close it is worth remembering the Clean Water Act turned 40 on October 18. The bill moved through Congress (after an override of President Richard Nixon’s veto) at a time when legislators were not just giving lip-service to balancing economic development and the environment.
There are many things to celebrate about the CWA, including the fact that many (but not all) of the nation’s water-ways are cleaner than they were in 1972. The most cited examples: industrial rivers like the Cuyahoga don’t catch on fire anymore and there is less raw sewage in waters of the United States.
There are also many reasons behind the CWA’s successes. Sewage and pollution point source discharges from a pipe into navigable waters of the US must be permitted. Citizens and state agencies use different sections of the CWA to identify point and non-point source pollution, design stream restoration programs, and de-list once impaired segments. Wetlands – nature’s sponges – can be protected from dredging and filling. Citizens also have the power to comment on National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits, to influence agency rule-making (like power plant water withdrawal technology), and to initiate lawsuits for non-compliance.
The CWA is a powerful piece of environmental legislation that works from the ground-up. It is “one of the great success stories of environmental law,” according to James Salzman. You can learn more about the CWA and its tool box by surfing to River Network’s “Introduction to the CWA Course.”
At its heart, the CWA’s simple premise is that all waters of the US should be drinkable, fishable, and swimmable.
But where did this legal instrument come from? First, the impetus behind a national clean water policy was not entirely ecological. It was not designed to save endangered species. Nor was the goal to halt development. The reason was actually the opposite and much more basic: to promote equitable economic development in shared watersheds.
The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 (FWPCA) emerged soon after World War II. From a post-war economic big-bang, the modern suburban landscape – including rows of identical homes for the baby boomers to grow-up in, strip malls, supermarkets, and ribbons of interstate highway to tie everything together – coalesced. This growth produced a tidal wave of untreated sewage, industrial pollution, and agricultural run-off that flowed downstream, threating economic development. Citizens, politicians, local boosters and state agency representatives quickly learned to love clean water.
Interest in cleaning up pollution warmed after 1956 when Congress added a grant program to the FWPCA providing communities with money to build sewage treatment plants. The basic step of wastewater treatment made it possible for upstream and downstream communities to use the same water sources to carry treated municipal effluent away, provide municipal drinking water supplies, and assimilate industrial waste. This early national water policy, however, had a poor enforcement mechanism. And this is what made the FWPCA of 1972 – aka the Clean Water Act – different from its predecessors. The CWA included, among many other elements noted above, an enforceable permitting system administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.
By the 1960s, everybody understood that without clean water there would be no economic development. I don’t mean to imply that paddlers, anglers, and professionals didn’t understand ecology, didn’t care about aquatic organisms, or didn’t have a capacity to think-like-a-watershed before 1972: they did. Countless citizens, lawyers, scientists and legislators influenced federal water policy in important ways, laying the groundwork for the CWA and a host of other environmental laws.
In more recent years, the CWA has faced systematic attacks from Congressional opponents. And, as the act enters middle-age, we have not been able eliminate pollution discharges as the CWA’s authors had hoped. Additionally, while we can regulate point sources, we remain challenged to systematically manage non-point sources and stormwater. Finally, and for folks here in Georgia, the state agency responsible for implementing CWA requirements has been defunded and complicit in illegal discharges. A textbook example: King America Finishing’s five-year unpermitted discharge led to Ogeechee River fish kills. Read about it in the Georgia Water Coalition’s 2012 Dirty Dozen.
Like our predecessors, we continue to understand that as long as unchecked pollution rolls downstream, nobody will be able to drink, fish, and swim…or perhaps go to work.
When I taught sections of US history I concluded my 1970s lecture with recent examples of smog, agricultural run-off and contaminated drinking water in places like China where explosive growth – in residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural sectors – has produced waves of pollution. Economic and environmental crashes may follow if emerging economies make no attempt – or only offer lip-service – to balance economic development and environmental resources.
Given that uncertainty, the US environmental regulatory ecosystem that extinguished fires on the Cuyahoga begins to look like a wise investment for our own economic and environmental sustainability.
And for that reason I remain hopeful for what the Clean Water Act might still yet accomplish.
Paul Charles Milazzo, Unlikely Environmentalists: Congress and Clean Water, 1945-1972
Karl Boyd Brooks, Before Earth Day: The Origins of Environmental Law, 1945-1970
The Georgia Water Coalition released the second annual Dirty Dozen yesterday (November 14). Georgia River Network is one of the Georgia Water Coalition’s 175 partners, which represent a total of 300,000 Georgians. The Governor’s office offered an ill-conceived response.
The Dirty Dozen exposes the links between agency underfunding, legislative accounting tricks, and political cronyism to offenses against Georgia’s waterways. You can read the press release here. You can find the full report (and the individual issues) on the Georgia Water Coalition’s website.
The Dirty Dozen range from unnecessary reservoirs (Richland Creek, Glades, and Tired Creek), an aquifer storage and recovery project (Flint River), and a water-well for a water park (Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority). The list also includes pollution issues from last year that have not been resolved, including the Ogeechee River (King America Finishing’s illegal pollution discharge) and the Altamaha River (Rayonier’s pollution discharge permit renewal). Other items include the misappropriation of fees collected to clean up hazardous waste (South River) and illegal tire dumps (Pachitla Creek).
In less than 24 hours, the Dirty Dozen generated at least seventeen stories in media markets all around the state.
GPB Broadcast on Dirty Dozen GWC story at 1:58 mark
Coastal rivers among state’s dirtiest waterways Brunswick News
Ogeechee River tops ‘Dirty Dozen” list again Savannah Morning News
Camden County canal makes Georgia Water Coalition’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ Florida Times-Union
Georgia ‘Dirty Dozen’ water list released The Albany Herald
Dirty Dozen List: Fouling Georgia’s water WALB-TV (with video)
OPINION: Ogeechee Riverkeeper on target with lawsuit Savannah Morning News
Group cites fish kill and Vogtle as threats to Georgia’s water The Augusta Chronicle
Coalition names ‘dirty dozen’ water offenses Macon Telegraph
Environmental group lists Flat, Allen creeks on list of state’s … Gainesville Times
Two Hall Co. offenders on “Dirty Dozen” list Access North Georgia
Ogeechee River Tops “Dirty Dozen List” WSAV-TV (with video)
Paulding County s proposed Richland Creek reservoir upstream Rome News Tribune
Water Conservation Group Names Dirty Dozen Fox 24/ABC16
This last WABE story included the Governor’s Response. If Governor Nathan Deal’s office continues to think that every Georgian who cares about clean water, fishing, property values, political favoritism and fiscal conservatism is a part of a “liberal interest group,” than the Governor might want to check-back in with the real Georgia I live in.
In reality, there are plenty of conservatives who’d like to see Georgia’s EPD and King America Finishing do a whole lot more for the Ogeechee River. Ogeechee River lovers birddogged Sen. Johnny Isakson at a fish fry far-away in Perry to spark his interest in their fight. And, there have always been fiscal conservatives who “vehemently oppose” wasting public dollars on ill-conceived projects like Grady County’s Tired Creek reservoir and Newton County’s Bear Creek reservoir. Or transportation, in case we’ve forgotten about July’s T-SPLOST.
Georgia’s demographics are shifting in many different ways. And there’s a good chance clean water will always be on Georgian’s minds, wherever they live.
The proposed Bear Creek Reservoir in Newton County continues to face an uphill march. In the rain and snow. Both ways. This self-directed slog continues despite rumors that the US Army Corps of Engineers (and Georgia Environmental Protection Division) is apparently poised to issue a 404 permit (which would also include a 401 Water Quality Certification) for the project. But here are some persistent and interconnected barriers.
Reservoir not needed: Reservoir consultant Tommy Craig recently alluded to the notion that Newton County does not need any water, according to this Rockdale Citizen article. What? Craig stated that the county should only build the Bear Creek dam and fill the pool. That means no pumped-storage equipment, no pipes, and no drinking water treatment facility because there is no “demand for additional water beyond what is supplied” by the county’s existing drinking water treatment facility.
Board of Commission reconsiders: Back in August, the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) presented Newton County with an option to accept a $21 million loan from the Governor’s Water Supply Program (GWSP) to build a dam so the pool might fill with Bear Creek water. But rather than simply accept the loan in October, the Newton County Board of Commission (BOC) tabled a resolution stating an intention to accept the loan.
The resolution apparently included a requirement stipulated by GEFA that “the county commit to meeting projected operating revenues and paying off debt associated with the Bear Creek Reservoir” by preparing “an updated rate analysis to determine the required operating revenues to meet the terms of GEFA’s loan,” according to the Covington News.
Left holding the bag: The BOC appears to be thinking long and hard about how rate and tax payers will pay off this boondoggle. The project’s cost remains a moving target and the oft-cited $62 million cost does not include a water treatment facility or the necessary pipes. Methods to pay of the mounting loan debt could include raising all water customers’ rates and/or all citizens’ taxes.
With no new customers – as previously alluded to by Craig – existing customers will have to pay for the proposed reservoir. Remember, the proposed reservoir will not generate ANY revenue because it will not be connected to a drinking water treatment facility. That is among the “big ticket” items that apparently inflated costs associated with Hard Labor Creek, another former Craig project and recent GWSP award recipient.
Given the lack of need, the lack of new customers, and the BOC’s apparent reluctance to raise rates and taxes, Newton County’s proposed Bear Creek reservoir is far from a done deal. Permits and offered loans alone do not transform a reservoir from a mirage into a reality.
You can read more about Bear Creek’s history here.
The 2012 summer drought came on fast and strong. To date, Georgia has only gotten brief respite from two tropical storms (Beryl and Debby) – the long sought after wet “natural disasters” that were supposed to save us from the dry “natural disaster.”
The Governor’s office said they were mum on drought because “Georgia was better prepared for it this time,” according to this Macon Telegraph story. The Los Angeles Times offered a different reason in a recent report, and identified drought and an inadequate water supply as bad publicity for business during a recession.
We all know that water and business has been, and remains linked. First, in August the Governor’s Water Supply Program extended a loan for the proposed Bear Creek reservoir since the applicant claimed that Baxter International selected Newton County because of the anticipated reservoir (as opposed to a sweet-heart inducement agreement).
Second, if drought, water and economic development were not connected, why would the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce ask members to contribute up to $5,000 at a Gov. Nathan Deal fundraiser because of “his substantial commitment to creating new reservoirs,” according to the Saporta Report. Finally, just a few weeks ago boosters in Macon cited the availability of water as a plus for folks looking to build new data centers in their city.
Bytes: And herein lies another connection between water, energy, and business in Georgia. An explicit statement in the Forward Atlanta agenda puts a lot of stock not just in regional reservoirs, but also in digital, internet, and wireless businesses. Georgia’s business boosters might want to take a second look at some of the leading corporations in our state. While doing business requires water and energy to produce goods and supply services, many businesses are out in front when it comes to reductions in water and energy footprints.
Instant gratification: Earthquake and hurricane-free metro Atlanta has become a regional hub for massive data centers and server farms that make our internet and mobile searches, purchases, postings, bulging email boxes, streaming-content, navigation, and “cloud” storage possible. There are “more than 50” health care, financial services, telecommunications and internet data centers in metro Atlanta (map), which sits at the intersection of two of the nation’s largest fiber optic routes. As always, Georgia also offers cheap electricity. And, as expected, Georgia has Sun Belt competition: WaterCrunch and GigaOM have written about some of the nation’s largest brand-name data centers (including Apple’s iCloud and solar array) and why they selected North Carolina.
Facilities like these – operated by Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, and third-party hosts (such as T5 Data Centers LLC, QTS, and peak 10) which hardly existed more than a decade ago – can consume tremendous quantities of electricity, diesel fuel, and water so we can use the internet whenever, where-ever, and for what-ever we desire. The New York Times recently published a thought-provoking two-part series on national data centers and energy consumption. The article sparked valid rebuttals from numerous folks in the tech infrastructure industry. So what?
Heat sink: I tap into a data center when I do a Bing search, listen to Spotify, watch a You Tube video, or send an email. And when data center servers work to complete our requests (or sit waiting to serve us or the next Twitter storm) – they get hot…really hot. Engineers pump cold air or water into facilities (that is, for evaporative cooling, chillers, misting systems and heat exchangers) that absorb and carry heat away from equipment. Data center designers are increasingly building server farms to work with site-specific environmental factors that reduce how much energy and water these systems use either directly when water is being used for cooling and indirectly if electricity is being used for cooling.
Tech Gets It: Goggle – a company that invests in wind and solar energy generation – has also designed multiple global facilities to use energy and water efficiently. For example, a converted a sixty-year old paper mill in Finland utilizes sea water – and not electric chillers – for cooling purposes. There is another unique facility in our backyard. Google’s metro Atlanta data center takes a portion of the Douglasville-Douglas County Water and Sewer Authority’s reuse water, uses the water to cool data center equipment (in evaporative cooling towers), and then retreats any remaining water before sending it to the Chattahoochee River.
Dollars: Water remains central to Georgia businesses, agriculture, energy generation, and daily suburban lifestyles. The point is not just to have enough, but to use the supply as efficiently and as economically as possible. A handful of corporations and local utilities have been systematically moving the “culture of conservation” needle.
- TOTO’s 1,800 high efficiency fixtures – which replaced water-wasting toilets and urinals – save 56 million gallons of water annually (a 19 percent reduction) at one of the world’s busiest airports: Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport.
- MillerCoors cleans up the Flint River not just by picking up trash, but also by using innovative waste water technologies.
- Anheuser-Busch InBev studied beers’ “water footprint” in their Cartersville brewery before instituting a conservation and efficiency program that can certainly benefit the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) River basin.
- Coca Cola and Pepsi – which are both City of Atlanta water customers – have altered production cycles and incorporated a waterless ionic air cleansing technology for bottles and cans to eliminate water waste in the production of soda, sport drinks, juice, and bottled water.
The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper has highlighted some of these businesses as well as a number of forward thinking public utilities in their updated report – Filling the Gap: Conservation Successes and Missed Opportunities in Metro Atlanta. These business and utility managers don’t hug trees or wear Birkenstocks; they watch bottom-lines while balancing water supplies, energy demands, water quality, and community needs.
Some of Georgia’s politicians and economic leaders balk at instituting aggressive water efficiency and solar energy initiatives that can ultimately make more room for the businesses Forward Atlanta’s strategists hope to slay. Many of our politicians should stop pretending otherwise and stop focusing only on expensive water supply or dirty-energy options.
Shannon McCaffrey’s recent Atlanta Journal Constitution article about the Governor’s Water Supply Program (GWSP) awards and blatant political favoritism sparked my interest in the “Scoring Methodology” that the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) and Department of Community Affairs (DCA) used to evaluate the Round I applications. Folks from GEFA, DCA, Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission, Georgia Environmental Protection Division, and others collectively whittled down the fifteen applications to a short-list including ten projects before seeking approval from the board of directors’ of GEFA and DCA, and then announcing eight awards on August 1. Surf here for an award summary and analysis.
As a former teacher, I know that all grading rubrics are simultaneously subjective and objective. But in the end, I can clearly explain how I arrived at any given assessment.
The GWSP’s methodology asked a scoring team comprised of four members (one each from GEFA, DCA, Dept. of Agri., and GSFIC) to evaluate the applications for specific quantitative and general qualitative elements. The scoring assessed the following criteria in four sections: project need and location; project financing; readiness and timeliness; and project impact.
So how did the projects fare?
The two projects on the short-list that did not receive awards were a proposal for a new reservoir in south Fulton County (Bear Creek Reservoir) and a reservoir enhancement project in Villa Rica, which was scored but apparently withdrawn. The scoring team determined that both project applications demonstrated tenuous, if any, “need.” One applicant – the South Fulton Municipal Regional Water & Sewer Authority (a current client of Joe Tanner & Associates and Tommy Craig) – apparently did not identify an imminent water supply shortfall. Furthermore, the applicant has access to an alternative and existing water supply – from the city of Atlanta. Finally, the financial health of the community scored poorly.
So it’s surprising that there were two other projects that did not demonstrate “need” but were funded. The Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority (a water-well-for-a-waterpark) and the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission (Flint River aquifer storage and recovery scheme) applications both scored multiple zeros in the need category. Out of a total possible score of 100 points for need, the LLIDA scored 5 points and the SWGRC zero.
The LLIDA and SWGRC projects also scored very low in “Project Approach and Impact” section. For example, both applicants apparently did not demonstrate that the projects will “provide substantial regional benefit” or “serve/benefit a significant number of Georgians.” This is interesting given that both applicants painted their projects as part of the solution to Lake Lanier’s ongoing water supply allocation conundrum and the tri-state water war. Plus, the LLIDA plan is coming under scrutiny, according to the Gainesville Times: “Resort’s well may be costly to Gainesville” – the current and primary water supplier to LLIDA, who is one of the city’s largest water customers.
The scoring team apparently was not convinced that these two projects – a water-well for an exclusive resort managed by a former political operative who was a major Deal campaign donor and an aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) project promoted by a former state agency head who was also a major Deal campaign donor – were qualified for direct state investment. So if the team didn’t give these projects a passing grade, who did?
And that’s only part of what is so frustrating. These two projects received $9 million in direct state investment (that is free money from state coffers) as opposed to loans. And taxpayers will own these pork-barrel boondoggles like we own bridges to nowhere. At the same time, existing state parks suffer and the State Archives is effectively shuttered. The GWSP awards really look more like water rewards for Gov. Nathan Deal’s team-players. This administration has made one thing very clear: if you can’t pay, you can’t play.
In the 1980s, representatives of Barrow, Clarke, Jackson, and Oconee counties began the planning process that resulted in the Bear Creek Reservoir (which should not be confused with the proposed Newton and South Fulton county Bear Creek Reservoirs). Under the terms of a much heralded inter-governmental agreement, the Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority (UOBWA) built a 505-acre pump-storage reservoir between 1998 and 2002 that can impound 4.8 billion gallons and reportedly deliver 53 million gallons per day to rate payers in four counties.
But before we celebrate, let’s be honest about the devilish financial and environmental details (some of which I have detailed in other posts including this one) that come with planning, building, managing, and maintaining our water supply systems.
Managing the Bear Creek help: The contracting process – involving contractors responsible for obtaining the dam’s soil and for wetlands mitigation – was far from smooth. And, the water treatment plant contractor contributed to the project running over schedule by almost one year. Former Oconee County Commission Chairman and former UOBWA chairman Wendell Dawson has expressed frustration with Tommy Craig – who secured Bear Creek’s state and federal permits – because Dawson and others “did not always feel that we knew all that was going on.”
An Argument for Funding Enforcement: The UOBWA has struggled to manage the authority’s shoreline. Visitors and private property owners have repeatedly trespassed on authority property, building private sand beaches, fire pits, docks, duck-blinds, and patios, and leaving boat trailers in the water. In other words, some adjacent property owners have treated the 150-buffer around the reservoir and the public drinking water supply reservoir as if it were a “publicly funded country club for lakeside residents,” according to one Jackson County resident. Thankfully, the majority of reservoir shoreline violators have cleaned up their act.
The Real Elephant in the Middle of the Reservoir: Conflict emerged within and between counties over financing and water allocation before the reservoir filled up in 2002. For example, the Jackson County Board of Commission (BOC) and Jackson County Water & Sewer Authority (WSA) administrators ran into two problems: they bought into a reservoir they will have a hard time paying for, and apparently they don’t actually need all the water because population projections were wrong.
Back in 2001, Jackson County folks were concerned that the reservoir’s and water treatment facility’s completion might be delayed by just one month. The delay – which ended up closer to one year – meant that Jackson WSA could not sell water and generate revenue that was required to pay down the project’s debt.
Then, in 2007, the Jackson WSA and the Jackson BOC ended up in a scuffle over who was responsible for the project’s debt. The WSA was responsible for paying down the county’s portion of debt owed to the UOBWA, but was in danger of not meeting obligations. The WSA approached the BOC for a “bailout” and temporary infusion of cash from the county’s general fund because the number of new customers did not increase and drought induced conservation behavior reduced revenue streams. The WSA was effectively requesting that county taxpayers who did not utilize WSA services help pay for Jackson County’s share of Bear Creek.
One year later, Jackson County’s BOC sued the UOBWA over an engineering firm’s calculation of how much water each member can physically withdraw from the reservoir. Jackson County seeks a recalculation that could dramatically reduce the amount all four counties – particularly the heaviest user (Clarke) – withdraw daily. The water allocation issue has not been resolved and suggests that Jackson County does not even need the full amount they originally signed-on for. And if they don’t, why is Jackson County still considering buying into the City of Jefferson’s proposed Parks Creek Reservoir along the North Oconee River?
One customer’s castle is another’s “Money Pit”? The Bear Creek story also illustrates that not all regional reservoir partners benefit equally. Aside from Jackson County’s experience, Barrow County Water and Sewerage Authority wholesale (and eventually all) water customers – a county with many bedroom communities like Jackson County that was hit hard by the Great Recession – may soon see a 77 percent rate increase.
Hardly drought-proof. Bear Creek – as a pumped storage project – can provide a short-term water supply when rivers run dry. But despite having a back-up reservoir, the UOBWA still had to request “emergency permission” from the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) “to draw 15 million gallons of water a day from the Middle Oconee.” This took place as Bear Creek’s water level dwindled precariously to a point when only a three-month supply of water remained during what has become Georgia’s drought of record in late 2007. And, all that emergency pumping left the Middle Oconee River’s USGS gauge stuck in the mud. The river dried up and stopped flowing.
Aggressive water management: The UOBWA has been generally proactive during recent droughts. Perhaps this is why the Georgia Legislature – which many believe caved to Georgia’s landscaping lobby – now requires all local water authorities to request special permission to manage local water supplies or institute stricter conservation measures than spelled out by the Georgia Water Stewardship Act? UOBWA is among a handful of communities that have requested a variance from EPD – and this suggests that the UOBWA members are smart planners and not disparaging when it comes to conservation and efficiency like some reservoir proponents.
Looking forward: Pulling Bear Creek reservoir together in the past on the premise of shared success was one thing while the reality has been quite different. That is why economic and environmentally sustainable water supply management must define the future. Any continued celebration of Bear Creek – or any future water supply proposal for that matter – will also have to take into consideration the results of the pending water loss audits required by the Georgia Water Stewardship Act (2010). The audits will measure the amount of water lost in our crumbling infrastructure. For example, capturing and treating two gallons of water but losing one gallon between the supply source and the kitchen sink because of leaky pipes only makes a water supply system less profitable, the future water supply less secure and downstream communities everywhere drier. Existing water supply systems can be operated to maximize existing supplies even as population grows, and thus eliminate the need for expensive new reservoirs that may never actually get built.
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.