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A Duck is a Duck

February 24, 2015

Two reservoir projects have generated a good bit of local criticism and media attention over the last few months.  One project—the Grady County Fishing Lake—is currently under construction.  The second—Newton County’s proposed Bear Creek water supply reservoir—has been in the permitting process for years.  If there were two issues residents of both communities share, it would be frustration over the projects’ mounting debt and the questionable need for the reservoirs.  Both communities also share another common trait: they have contracted the reservoir consulting services of Covington attorney William Thomas Craig.

Newton County

For background on the proposed Bear Creek reservoir, please start here.

In September of 2014, the US Army Corps of Engineers released a Public Notice announcing Newton County’s plans to move the dam site for the proposed Bear Creek reservoir.  It’s worth noting that the dam’s original location was identified in the first permit application in 2000, and again identified in a third version of the permit application submitted in 2008.  Why did it take fourteen years to determine the dam had to be moved?  Newton County wishes to relocate the dam upstream from the original location “based on a revised survey of the project site” and better modeling tools.

This request to relocate the dam raised additional concerns at the local level.  A vocal group of concerned tax payers seeking more transparency in government operations began asking the county attorney and commission members about the project’s management.  More than 100 people packed the county’s chambers for one meeting, and have repeatedly asked for scrutiny of Newton County’s current water supply capacities and future demands, of projected population data, and of the project’s cost and management by the county attorney—who also doubles as the county’s water supply consultant.

You can watch some of the more recent interactions as reported by 11 Alive here and here.

The most recent development should be of particular interest to folks tracking reservoir projects.  A previously misplaced, lost, or misdirected copy of a water supply “yield analysis” produced in 2009 was presented to the county commission in late 2014.  The document eliminated the need for the county to spend an additional $86,000 on a study that had already been completed.  Furthermore, the document “appears to contradict” the county water consultant’s claim on how much water was available from one of the county’s water sources during the 2007 drought.

Additionally, the draft Newton County Water Supply Master Plan, which was generated by another consultant at a cost of $240,000, was independently reviewed by the Newton County Water and Sewer Authority (NCWSA).  The NCWSA is Newton County’s primary wholesale customer and would ultimately purchase water from the county’s proposed Bear Creek reservoir.  Because of this relationship, the NCWSA’s rate payers are on the hook to pay for the county’s reservoir.  The NCWSA’s January 21, 2015 “Technical Memorandum” reviewed the draft water master plan and concluded:

  • “There is no urgency to build the Bear Creek Reservoir now.”  According to the reviewers, the draft master plan relied upon faulty population projections to justify the Bear Creek proposal, and did not consider the recession’s effects on population and water consumption dynamics.
  • “If Bear Creek Reservoir is built, water rates will double making the Authority one of the highest charging water utilities in the State of Georgia.”
  • “The wiser use of money is to repair/upgrade Newton County’s current treatment facilities at a fraction of the cost to build the Bear Creek Reservoir, Water Treatment Plant & Transmission Mains.”
  • “There are several deficiencies reported by Krebs at the two water treatment plants that should be immediately verified and if found to be correct should be immediately acted upon.”
  • “There are several flaws within the report itself that deserve close scrutiny.”

You can find excellent coverage of this review in the Newton Citizen and Covington News.

When combined, the community’s own third-party evaluation of existing infrastructure, needs, and the Bear Creek proposal all cast doubt on the accuracy and exactitude of Newton County’s Section 404 application.  As one local journalist reported, in Newton County’s water supply situation, the “problem lies in water management, not supply.”

We hope this development will encourage the Corps of Engineers to request the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to re-evaluate the 401 water quality certification and water withdraw permitting process in light of the NCWSA’s recent review of Newton County’s needs analysis.

Grady County

In south Georgia, local folks are frustrated with the Grady County commission’s recent decision to float a $10,000,000 bond to pay for a fishing lake.  You can read more about the Grady County fishing lake in the Georgia Water Coalition’s 2012 Dirty Dozen.  How will they pay for a total of $25,000,000 in bond debt?

One commissioner suggested, “We have got to tighten our belts on a lot of things, and” expenses related to Tired Creek’s consulting services might be a target.  This prompted a Thomasville Times-Enterprise online commentator to retort, “Well, when you have already lost your pants, it is kind of hard to tighten a belt.”

Another more plausible option to pay off the debt: Sell lake-side or water front lots.

In 2005, Grady County’s first application to the Corps of Engineers for a Section 404 permit indicated plans for a large planned community and development around an amenity lake.  That application was subsequently revised and the amenity lake was transformed into a fishing lake.  The permit was issued in 2010 with an “environmentally sensitive” master plan that did not include any significant property development—aside from a handful of pavilions, roads, and public access point—in the lake’s 100-foot buffer and the approximately 2,000 surrounding acres.  In other words, the official Corps of Engineers approved plan does not include water front lots.

However, in 2013, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation (HB 201) to create the Grady County Lake Authority.  The authority has the power to condemn private property, to acquire and sell property, and to assume debt via issuance of bonds.

Then, in the fall of 2014, the Grady County commissioners, staff and lake authority members began openly discussing plans to sell surplus property around the fishing lake now under construction.  While they claim to have no formal plans, the county commissioners, county attorney, and lake authority members are openly discussing the prospect of planning for the sale and/or development of surplus land around the lake.  They have clearly been planning unofficially to plan formally.

For example:

  • November 12, 2014: “Commissioners met with members of the lake authority…to set priorities for the amenities proposed, as well as the possibility of selling the county-owned land that is not needed by the county for the project.” (Cairo Messenger)
  • December 4, 2014: “Norton said the Lake Authority is currently working on a grant to put in sewage and water lines to prepare for potential housing development in the future.” (WALB News 10)
  • January 21, 2015: “Bryan said the authority would want to solicit consultants to do a market survey and provide information in the type of development needs in this area as well as a calculation on absorption of the surplus property.  ‘The plan we have presented, we believe, lends itself well to getting the surplus property back on the tax rolls.  The sooner we can do that the sooner the county will benefit from the investment it has made in this project,’ Bryan said.” (Cairo Messenger)
  • January 28, 2015: “Commissioner Norton admitted the goal is to eventually sell the surplus property and the county could then begin to recover some of the investment it has made in the lake.  Attorney Cauley noted that not only would the county benefit from the sale of the property but even more so by the development on the property for years to come.” (Cairo Messenger)

If it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck—it’s a duck

Local reservoir proponents in multiple locales—like Hall County (Glades Reservoir) and South Fulton County (Bear Creek)—have repeatedly asserted that proposed water supply reservoirs will not become amenity lakes.  Maybe most water supply reservoirs do not become amenity lakes, but it would be inaccurate to say that houses have not popped up around municipal reservoirs and caused management problems, or that reservoirs will enhance value of undeveloped property in the reservoir’s vicinity.  Bear Creek reservoir in Jackson County is an example.

Perhaps a clear sign the proposed Paulding County’s Richland Creek reservoir will not become an amenity lake is a recent report about a fence intended to surround the 305-acre reservoir.  If this report is true (which it may not be), one local correctly stated: “If I’m in the fencing business, I would not want to miss that” bid request.

We have long argued that communities should stop throwing good money after the bad on reservoir projects – particularly amenity lakes disguised as reservoirs.  Furthermore, the lack of transparency surrounding reservoir projects does not inspire trust among those responsible for footing the bill.  In short: reservoirs for any purpose should be the option of last resort for forward thinking local leaders who are accountable to voters, taxpayers and utility rate payers.

-Chris Manganiello

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