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“A small universe of people”

July 27, 2011

That’s how William Thomas “Tommy” Craig described his water supply and reservoir consulting outfit in a June 2011 AJC article.  Craig’s universe has also called upon former Georgia public servants Joe Tanner (the former Department of Natural Resources commissioner) and Harold Reheis (the former Environmental Protection Division head).  Combined, this universe has collected upwards of $25,000 a month from local tax coffers to help county and municipal governments navigate the permitting, engineering, and mitigation steps that can eventually lead to new water supply reservoirs (such as Glades Farm and South Fulton-Bear Creek).  Craig is also under the employ of his hometown commission as a consultant for Newton County’s Bear Creek Reservoir project.

There are problems with this consulting set-up:

First, this reservoir building process can last for a decade or more and there is no guarantee a given reservoir project will ever come on line.  Thus, a failed reservoir project would be costly to tax payers even if the ceremonial first silver shovel load turn-eth no red clay.

Second, Craig has the opportunity to wear two hard-hats.  Under one hat, he serves on the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District’s board where he guides decisions on where metro Atlanta might build new reservoirs as well as determining if the region should (or should not) pursue other water supply alternatives such as aggressive water efficiency programs.  Then, under the paid-consultant’s hat, he stands the chance of winning contracts and billable hours to fulfill permitting and construction duties.  How many new reservoirs have been proposed in Metro North to meet projected water supply demands?  According to a related AJC story (“Water Woes; Forsyth immersed in push for reservoirs,” June 1, 2011): six new surface reservoirs.

Third, the hard sell.  The related article demonstrates that some communities might fall for a consultant’s hard sell that low-balls actual reservoir construction costs.  For example, the Hickory Log Creek water supply reservoir had a projected cost of $30 million when dirt started flying – the cost mushroomed to $100 million.  As Forsyth Commissioner Pete Amos described his experiences with consultants, “I’m not sure” reservoir building is “as urgent for us…as it is for them.” (See June 1 AJC article)

It’s not clear what Amos exactly means, but consider this: the longer the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint tri-state water war and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa bi-state conflict drag on, the longer tax payers remain on the hook to pay eager consultants.  County staff and commissions know they do not have the money to throw at expensive proposed water projects in this economy.  The $46 million Governor Nathan Deal has budgeted for water projects over the next year (out of a proposed $300 million over three years) is not even enough to pay for one reservoir (e.g., seven proposed projects have a combined projected cost of $1.5 BILLION).  Perhaps Deal’s money is really ‘earmarked’ for water supply project consultants?  Another old tool – bonds don’t look so great with a soft bond market and few new residential customers on the horizon to pay off the new facilities.  Aside from common sense water conservation and efficiency projects, wouldn’t it be sensible to focus our energy on lobbying Georgia’s elected leadership to resolve the tri-state water war and raise Lake Lanier’s pool?

When Georgia’s elected representatives continue to drag out the water wars they create uncertainty about water supply.  Despite the successful 2011 appeal of Magnuson’s 2009 ruling, Gov. Deal has continued to pump uncertainty and stump for new reservoirs.  This certainly looks convenient for reservoir proponents and those that stand to profit from them – the consultants, the earthmovers, and the real estate developers who might get to build homes on the shoreline.  As long as there is a chance that communities might lose access to Lake Lanier or other federal reservoirs, there is a rationale to spend tax payers’ money on expensive consultants who tell us new reservoirs are the only path to water security. (Reheis even alluded to this point last year.)  Uncertainty and the hard sell make the water wars good for the professional litigators and the consultants.  In fiscal terms, that’s increasingly bad for tax payers, particularly those in metro Atlanta’s real estate “Ring of Death.”

-Chris Manganiello

4 Comments leave one →
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