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Thinking Through Public-Private Reservoirs

May 13, 2010

Public-private reservoirs are hot water supply topics in Georgia.  The 2010 legislature has sent HB 406 (the South Fulton reservoir bill) to Gov. Perdue, SB 321 failed, Hall County keeps changing-up on Glades Reservoir, and existing reservoirs are making headlines.  Each story offers a cautionary tale: it’s easy for boosters to propose and justify new reservoirs, but they rarely talk about the scope of future responsibilities or the wisdom of public-private access to municipal water sources.

Bear Creek Regional Reservoir:  The Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority built this pumped storage facility specifically to supply drinking water to four counties and cities like Athens.  Project managers, however, have recently spent significant energy policing homeowners who violated shoreline management policies, and officials are scrambling to provide access to anglers in boats.  If authority officials cannot adequately manage their shoreline or public access to a working reservoir, then water quality and a financial investment will be compromised.

Commerce and Statham: Erosion, caused in part by vehicles “mud-bogging” along the shoreline in Commerce, can lead to a variety of reservoir problems.  Once soil enters a municipal reservoir it will ultimately reduce total water supply capacity by making the reservoir less deep.  Shallow reservoirs in northeast Georgia do not circulate water very well and this can produce water that tastes and looks bad.  Dredging, artificial water circulation, and enhanced treatment technologies are expensive, and these costs will eventually be passed on to water customers in the form of higher rates.  Thankfully, the 2010 Legislature passed HB 207, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Sims, which subjects those caught riding their ATVs in rivers and streams to fines and other penalties.  As Georgia ecologist Eugene P. Odum said years before Earth Day: Human behavior on the land affects what happens in the water.

Berkeley Lake: The City of Berkeley Lake is responsible for a 1950s-era earthen dam and the Berkeley Lake Homeowners own the reservoir, which is surrounded by, and upstream of, hundreds of suburban homes.  Metro Atlanta’s record 2009 rainfall damaged the Berkeley Lake dam, and City officials lowered the reservoir’s level to ease pressure on the dam after consulting with Georgia Safe Dams Program (GSDP) employees.  The City cannot afford to bear the full costs (as much as $4M according to some consultants), but does have some options to help with their burden.  In any case, the dam has to be repaired to GSDP standards since experience tells us poorly maintained earthen dams can fail.

Toccoa Falls: Nearly every water supply reservoir and amenity lake in Georgia filled up behind an earthen dam.  An earthen dam – a massive pile of engineered dirt and rock – is a delicate structure that requires continual management to avoid failure.  The most dramatic Georgia dam failure took place when the Kelly Barnes earthen dam near Toccoa Falls collapsed in 1977.  The ensuing flood waters killed 39 sleeping people and caused $2.8 million in damages.  An official report attributed the failure to a combination of factors including problems related to structural improvements that made the dam taller to increase the reservoir’s water storage capacity, a history of internal leaks, and erosion on the downstream face.  The state legislature passed the Georgia Safe Dams Act of 1978 (which created GSDP) in the wake of this very disaster.

Dam failures aren’t just history.  A neglected earthen dam on private property recently failed in Athens following a January 2010 storm.  Based on my observations, when dams fail, they also send mud, sediment, dam debris, and dead fish downstream.  And then there is the empty reservoir to manage.  Unless a dam is repaired and the reservoir refilled, the exposed soil will eventually begin to enter the stream, affect overall downstream water quality, and potentially lead to increased municipal water treatment costs (see above).

So, it is extremely important that property owners and municipalities maintain the thousands of earthen dams found throughout Georgia and the rest of the southeast.  And, if we want public-private reservoirs in the future, we must think things through, understand a working reservoir’s higher purpose, feel comfortable with the environmental trade-offs, and accept responsibility for future management.

-Chris Manganiello

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