Water Woes

Article Published in Atlanta Journal Constitution 06/01/11

WATER WOES

Forsyth immersed in push for reservoirs

3 proposed projects are on county agenda. Governor’s plan to build with public, private money will be tested.

By Jeffry Scott jscott@ajc.com  and Patrick Fox pfox@ajc.com  

   Forsyth County, sitting on Lake Lanier without permission to take a sip, is shaping up as the site where Gov. Nathan Deal’s push to build reservoirs with public and private money will test the waters.

   It is also the place that illustrates the difficult realities of building big lakes to address the state’s potentially crippling water needs.

   The county has three proposed reservoirs on its table — more than any county in the state — with a combined proposed cost of $1.1 billion. Yet, as private developers push for a commitment, Forsyth officials worry that the need for these massive water projects remains unproven, and, even if the need becomes clear, they still lack state guidelines to proceed.

   Deal, who has made reservoir building a priority, earlier this month signed a new law that allows local governments to work with private developers on massive water projects. Deal argued the approach would stretch public dollars to build reservoirs and “help us get projects moving before the next drought.”

   Deal also set aside $46 million for water supply infrastructure in his budget. But the details of how it will be spent won’t be known for months, and that financial assistance might fall far short of counties’ actual needs.

   Estimated costs for reservoirs can vary wildly, with some formulas predicting swings of hundreds of millions of dollars. And millions in tax dollars can be consumed by the lengthy, complex permitting process — a whirlpool of paperwork that offers no guarantee a reservoir will be built.

   Even with Deal’s sense of urgency, the uncertainty surrounding reservoirs has some saying it’s not time to speed up. It’s time to slow down.

   Forsyth County Commissioner Jim Boff worries that developers are trying to rush the county into a reservoir agreement before officials know how the county would pay for it. Options include bonds, a SPLOST and even higher water rates.

   “Right now, we have no idea,” Boff said. “And we’re being asked to make a commitment. It’s hurry up and wait.”

   Why Forsyth?

   Forsyth has found itself immersed in the reservoir push thanks to its rapid growth and lack of direct access to Lake Lanier for drinking water. (It buys its water from Cumming, which draws from Lanier.)

   The county’s thirst for water is expected to triple during the next 25 years, as its population swells from about 175,000 to an expected 420,000.

   Investors recently have brought in two proposals — the Calhoun Creek and Shoal Creek reservoirs. Both likely would take a decade to develop. A third project with a Forsyth connection — the Glades reservoir in Hall County — has been in the works since 2002. Together, the three projects would generate about 227 million gallons a day.

   Forsyth likely would have to choose one to get through the permitting process, which requires state and federal demographic, engineering and environmental studies. The County Commission glimpsed the hard sell last month, when Atlanta attorney Scott Cole and Texas consultant John Wolfhope pitched Calhoun Creek, a 590-acre reservoir that would be built by the Georgia Reservoir Co. where Dawson and Lumpkin counties meet.

   During an hourlong presentation, Cole and Wolfhope described a scenario where Forsyth would be short 30 million gallons of drinking water a day in 50 years even if it is permitted to tap into Lake Lanier.

   Wolfhope said the commission’s plan to raise Lake Lanier by 2 feet and provide an additional 25 billion gallons for metro Atlanta — sounds good but is far more expensive than they were led to believe. Raising the lake would cost $2 billion, he said — about 13 times the cost projected to build Calhoun Creek.

   When Boff, the Forsyth County commissioner, sharply questioned Wolf-hope on his estimate, the consultant responded that he believed he had heard it reported somewhere.

   A few days later Wolf-hope told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter he could not confirm the figure without more research.

   The pitch left a clear impression with Forsyth Commissioner Pete Amos, not so much about the need for water as the need for consultants to sell reservoirs.

   “I’m not sure it’s as urgent for us,” Amos said, “as it is for them.”

   At what cost?

   Projecting the cost of a reservoir is difficult.

   Before making any reservoir deal, Canton City Manager Scott Wood advises local governments to “do all your homework, do a lot of research” because the price quoted in proposals may not come near the final tally paid by taxpayers.

   He speaks from experience.

   The Hickory Log reservoir, a joint venture between the city and the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority, was priced at $30 million to $35 million when Canton, which has a 25 percent stake in the reservoir, sold its first bond for the project in 2005. Estimates now put the final cost at more than $100 million, one reason the city is now considering an increase in water rates of $7 per month.

   One formula to project reservoir costs, provided to the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority in a 2008 study, says the cost can swing between $4 million and $10 million for every 1 million gallons of water generated each day. Following that guideline, the Calhoun Creek reservoir, which would generate 47.5 million gallons a day and according to its proponents cost $156 million, actually could cost between $190 million and $475 million.

   Wolfhope, one of the Calhoun Creek consultants, said that if Forsyth sold 30-year municipal bonds to fund a $150 million reservoir, after interest paid to investors, it would cost $300 million.

   Is there a need?

   The state’s drive for reservoirs accelerated in 2009 when U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ordered Georgia to reach an agreement with Alabama and Florida in their decades-old battle over water withdrawal from Lake Lanier by July 2012. If Georgia failed to reach an agreement or get Congress to sanction metro Atlanta’s use of the lake for drinking water, Magnuson would limit the region to taking out the same amount of water as it used in the mid-1970s, when the area’s population was a fraction of its current size.

   But in March, when a panel of judges from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments from the three states and other parties, it appeared that panel was ready to vacate Magnuson’s deadline.

   Whether reservoirs or conservation are the answer to the region’s water needs is a debate that Magnuson’s ruling in the tri-state water case brought into the spotlight for many.

   The Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District estimates that by 2035, the 15 counties it defines as metro Atlanta will have about 7.5 million people and require about 1.1 billion gallons of surface water a day. Right now, the region uses about 500 million gallons.

   To meet that need, the district says as many as six reservoirs need to be built.

   But environmentalists — who generally oppose reservoirs, saying they can be environmentally destructive — argue on the side of conservation.

   The environmental group Upper Chattahoochee River-keeper produced a study showing as much as 160 million gallons a day could be saved through conservation.

   “If we get reasonable use of Lake Lanier, these reservoirs are not necessary,” said Joe Cook, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, who opposes Deal’s initiative in particular because he says its first motivation is making money instead of providing water. “Water conservation and better utilization of existing reservoirs could prevent us from having to invest millions, even billions, in new reservoir projects,” he said.

   Kit Dunlap, the chairwoman of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, sees the need, though, and praises Deal’s efforts.

   “I think the only way we’re going to get something done,” she said, “is with private-public partnership.”

Kit Dunlap serves as chairwoman of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. She says conservation is paramount. She supports Gov. Nathan Deal’s efforts. Vino Wong vwong@ajc.com 

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