South Fulton reservoir clears hurdle

South Fulton reservoir clears hurdle?

By Sarah Fay Campbell The Times-Herald

A bill passed on the last day of the 2010 Georgia General Assembly session may clear the way, at least partly, for a proposed drinking water reservoir in South Fulton County.

For the past several years, the South Fulton Municipal Water and Sewer Authority has been planning a drinking water reservoir to supply Palmetto, Fairburn and Union City. After a long search for the right location, the authority decided on a 440-acre reservoir on Bear Creek, surrounded by land owned by Carl Bouckaert. Bouckaert owns thousands of acres in South Fulton, including many along the Chattahoochee River, that will likely be developed in the future.

According to published reports, as of last fall, the authority had issued bonds and spent millions on land acquisition.

Then, in mid-November, a federal judge halted the project, saying that it would impede the city of Atlanta’s ability to comply with a court order. Atlanta was sued by the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper over sewage pollution — and it needs the revenue from Fairburn and Union City, long into the future, to pay for the cleanup it has been ordered to do.

Fairburn and Union City currently get water from the city of Atlanta as part of Fulton County’s service delivery agreement.

House Bill 406 exempts drinking water reservoirs from the confines of service delivery agreements.

The Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and the Flint Riverkeeper have expressed strong opposition to HB 406 and the Bear Creek Reservoir.

“If this reservoir is built, its operation will result in a significant and entirely unnecessary loss of water to the river and communities downstream in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida,” said Sally Bethea, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in a release.

The groups, in the release, argue that Atlanta “has the existing, fully permitted capacity to continue to serve the area well into the future, without the construction of this reservoir.”

The bill only exempts reservoirs from service delivery agreements. Permits must still be obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build reservoirs, and from the state to withdraw water from the reservoir and from the Chattahoochee River.

According to Bethea, the reservoir would supply up to 16 million gallons of drinking water a day. But, the authority has applied to withdraw up to 32 MGD from the Chattahoochee to keep the reservoir full. Bear Creek itself cannot supply forecast future demand, or keep the lake full, she said.

“Why are they spending all this money to build a lake to pump water out of the river? And pumping twice as much as is needed?” she said. “If they need 16 MGD,” they could just pump it directly out of the river.

One reason for all the pumping is that the lake won’t just be a drinking water reservoir, Bethea said. It will be an “amenity lake” for future development, and the extra water is needed to keep it full.

Bethea expressed concerns over more water being taken out of the Chattahoochee, at a time when Georgia is locked in a fierce battle with Florida and Alabama over the water in the Chattahoochee, Flint, and Apalachicola rivers.

Protecting minimum flows is normally a part of any water withdrawal permit.

For instance, Newnan Utilities has permits to withdraw water from several creeks, which is then pumped to its reservoirs.

However, pumping is only allowed when stream flows are at certain levels. When the streams are low, Newnan Utilities must rely on the water stored in the reservoirs.

In the Chattahoochee River, there are additional needs for flows — to dilute treated wastewater that flows from dozens of sewage treatment plants.

When asked Monday about various permit restrictions, Bethea said the Chattahoochee and Flint Riverkeepers “are not confident that the regulatory process will thoroughly” address those issues.

West Point Lake near Troup County is already beginning to show higher levels of nutrients than it should, she said.

Bethea said she has seen some versions of proposed permits which don’t have any restrictions on river or lake levels.

If things were better fleshed out in the permit and “if there were adequate mitigation for this project, we might have something to at least talk about,” Bethea said. But as it is, “we see there are a number of strikes against it.”

There are also concerns about the ramifications for other parts of the state.

“This bill is changing a state policy that made sense. That helps local governments plan for the future,” Bethea said.

Service delivery agreements allow cities or counties to know that they have the future customers to support the expense of building a reservoir.

“Now it says anybody that comes up with a plan can pull out and not be there in the future to help support infrastructure that is expensive and takes a long time to build — that is fundamentally a problem,” Bethea said.