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Can’t Be All Roses. Devilish Details in Bear Creek

September 25, 2012

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.

-Chris Manganiello

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