Joe Cook: Dams to nowhere: Projects drain public coffers, rivers

Article Published in Cherokee Tribune 08/21/2011

Thank you for your coverage of proposed reservoirs in the Upper Etowah River Basin in your Aug. 5 edition. The proposed Shoal Creek and Calhoun Creek reservoirs in Dawson and Lumpkin counties should be watched closely by all downstream who depend upon the Etowah River and by every taxpayer in the state. 

You've heard of the infamous "bridge to nowhere;" these reservoirs might well be viewed in the same light -dams to nowhere that epitomize wasteful use of public dollars. 

The price tag for the proposed 1,200-acre Shoal Creek reservoir in Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area is $650 million - more than four times the cost of the recently completed Hickory Log Reservoir, of which the city of Canton was an investor. The smaller Calhoun Creek project is estimated to cost $150 million. 

Yes, both projects will leverage investment from private companies, but you can bet these private companies will come after state loans that have been made available with the passage of legislation earlier this year that enables public-private reservoir partnerships. In fact, right now a task force commissioned by Gov. Nathan Deal is working on a system for doling out more than $300 million that will be made available to such projects over the next four years. 

But, you ask, aren't we in dire need of more water? Aren't such investments justified? 

That depends on the outcome of ongoing litigation over the use of the big federal reservoirs - Allatoona and Lanier - and even more importantly, how efficiently we use the supplies that are currently available to us. 

If Georgia gains a reasonable use of Allatoona and Lanier, the need for most of these proposed reservoirs evaporates. And if Georgia invests in fixing its leaking pipes, replacing old water-wasting toilets, fixtures and appliances and using our water wisely, we can greatly extend our supplies - and at a fraction of the cost of building new dams. 

Georgia's Environmental Protection Division has determined conservation and efficiency measures cost from $0.46 to $250 for every 1,000 gallons saved. Building a reservoir, on the other hand, can cost $4,000 for every 1,000 gallons. The Shoal Creek project tallies out at more than $8,000 for every 1,000 gallons. In other words, don't buy the Cadillac when a Chevy will get you to the same place. 

Each day, in communities across Georgia, millions of gallons of water leak from pipes before ever reaching a customer - in some communities, the losses amount to more than one out of every four gallons.

Yet, rather than placing a priority on stopping leaks and making more efficient use of our water, it appears our state will instead invest millions on high ticket reservoirs to pump water to those still leaking pipes and water-wasting plumbing fixtures. That's just bad business. 

But, these dams don't stop at draining public coffers; they'll also drain our rivers. As proposed, the Shoal Creek project would remove up to 100 million a day (MGD) from the Etowah and pipe it to other portions of metro Atlanta via an interbasin transfer. That's more than five times the amount that is currently diverted from the Etowah. 

To put it in perspective, the average flow on the Etowah River near the site of the proposed reservoir during the low-flow month of September is just 121 MGD. Even during the high flows of the winter, the Etowah tops out at an average of 372 MGD.

The private companies that want to profit off these reservoirs will tell you that their projects will help "regulate" flows downstream and insure water even during drought, but that is a tall task when the water removed from the system is never returned. You simply can't divert 25 percent or more of the river's flow each day and still maintain flows that mimic natural and healthy conditions. 

Unfortunately, current state law makes it very difficult for communities downstream to stop these water diversion projects once state environmental regulators approve them. Thus, now is the time for those in Canton, Marietta, Dallas, Cartersville and Rome (all communities who depend on the Etowah) to be vigilant and say "no" to these money- wasting, river-draining proposals. 

These projects are dams to nowhere. Until we get our fiscal house (and the water closet inside it) in order, they are pure folly. 

Joe Cook, executive director and riverkeeper, Coosa River Basin Initiative in Rome

Read more: Cherokee Tribune - dams to nowhere projects drain public coffers rivers 

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