Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Written 1/30/2007

Psst! Wanna buy some sewage water?

It’s not fit to drink or touch, but it is cheap!

Oconee County plans to charge customers who use treated sewage water from its Rocky Branch waste treatment plant, rather than give the water away, officials said at the January 17 meeting called to discuss the County’s plans for water reservoirs.

The County will maintain separate meters for use of the treated sewage water and plans to recover some of the costs of pumping the water to customers through a usage fee.

Wayne Provost, the director of strategic and long-range planning for the County, made the announcement about fees for use of the sewage water in response to a question at the meeting. Utility Director Gary Dodd elaborated.

"There will be a minimal charge for the reuse water because it is being pumped, it is being piped, it is being metered to those homes or facilities that are using it, so there has to be a charge," Mr. Dodd said.

The County did not mention plans to charge for use of the sewage plant effluent at either the March 14, 2006, or December 12, 2006, public hearings on the proposed upgrade of the Rocky Branch Plant.

Developers are running separate water lines, one for drinking water and the other for treated sewage water, in some subdivisions, such as the mammoth Parkside with its nearly 900 home sites. The reuse water is to be used for fertilizing lawns.

The County ordinance, passed in March of 2005, stipulates that reuse water should NOT be used for the following: "drinking, food preparation, hand washing, automobile washing, or irrigation of fruits and vegetables."

EPD regulations specifically recommends against any use that brings the treated water into contact with the skin and prohibits the use of the water for consumption by humans or animals, sprinkling of edible crops, body contact recreation, or filling of swimming pools.

At the December 12 hearing, an EPD officer said the EPD recommended anyone who touches the reuse water wash his or her hands before touching anything else.

At the January 17 discussion of reservoirs, the County touted the scheme to distribute reuse quality water as a cost-saver. Rather than treat the water from the sewage plants to drinking level quality, which is technologically possible, the County will save money by treating it to a lesser standard.

By using the treated sewage water, rather than drinking water, for watering lawns, the customers will save both themselves and the County money.

It is an open question whether people living in the subdivisions will choose to use the treated sewage water rather than drinking water, even if it saves them some money. It is common for children and pets to play in sprinklers and for customers to water both their vegetable gardens and fruit trees when they water their lawns.

Privately, County officials have recognized that a reuse market for the water may not develop quickly. In an email message Mr. Dodd wrote to Jim Sunta of Precision Planning on December 20, 2005, he said "I agree with your assumption that the reuse customer base will be slow to develop."

If the reuse market doesn’t materialize, the effluent of Rocky Branch sewage plant will be dumped into Barber Creek, if the County is given a permit to do that by the state Environmental Protection Division. That permit is pending.

The County also has not openly discussed other costs associated with the plan to develop the reuse market. While some developers are being encouraged to build the dual distribution system, when the developers complete their subdivisions, they will turn over the infrastructure, including the two water distribution systems, to the County for future maintenance.

The cost of maintaining dual distribution and metering systems has not been discussed at the two public hearings.

The promotion of use of the treated sewage water for irrigation also is at odds with current EPD plans to encourage water users to return as much water as possible to the streams from which the water has been taken.

The Bear Creek Reservoir, from which Oconee County is currently drawing most of its water, draws that water from the Middle Oconee River. Barber Creek flows to McNutt Creek and then back to the Middle Oconee.

Petitions signed by Friends of Barber Creek asked the EPD to require the County to treat any water it returned to Barber Creek to drinking water quality and to restrict the release to periods of normal water flow. In addition, we asked the EPD to do independent monitoring.

Jordan Jones and Goulding, the consulting firm the County hired to develop a wastewater treatment plans for the County, actually recommended that the County phase out its two existing waste water treatment plants–on Calls Creek and on Rocky Branch Road–and build a new plant on the Middle Oconee.

The January 17 meeting was about water, but, County officials acknowledged, at least implicitly, the linkage between the waste water treatment and drinking water treatment.

The amount of water the County brings in for drinking water increases the amount of water the County will have to treat at its sewage plants.

Both waste water treatment and drinking water treatment are functions of the County’s Utility Department. The debt the County takes on for water treatment and sewage treatment will have to be retired by that department and will be the responsibility of the County overall.

Both treatment of water for drinking and treatment of sewage water for discharge is done by plants using the same basic membrane filtrate technology.

It is quite possible to treat sewage water to drinking level quality. It is being done at a sewage plant in operation in Gwinnett County. And it is done many places around the world, as Jimmy Parker, from Precision Planning, acknowledged at the January 17 meeting.

So why won’t we do that in Oconee County?

"We don’t mind drinking other people’s waste water," Mr. Parker said in response to my question on this topic. "We just don’t want to drink our own."

One of the two reservoirs proposed would be downstream from an Athens sewage treatment plant. The other would be downstream from Monroe’s sewage treatment plant.

In fact, if the County gets its way and is given permits to discharge treated sewage from the Rocky Branch Waste Treatment plant into both Barber Creek and the Apalachee River, both proposed reservoirs would be downstream from Oconee sewage treatment plants.

So we may not like drinking our own waste water, but that is exactly what the County is proposing. It just doesn’t want to talk much about it.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Written 1/25/2007

Water Council Meeting Contrasted with County Meeting on Reservoirs

The public hearing last night before the Georgia Water Council on the University of Georgia campus contrasted in a number of ways with the public meeting a week earlier in Oconee County on proposed water reservoir options.

Georgia is running out of water and will not be able to provide enough water to meet the needs of state’s population in the next 25 years, Dr. Carol Couch, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said last night. As a result, preservation and conservation are essential.

A week earlier, Oconee County officials and their consultants said the County, based on high-end projections of population growth, needs a lot more water to feed planned and hoped for development in the County. As a result, the County needs to act quickly before others get the water first.

The Water Council meeting at the Georgia Center focused on the limited supply of water and what the state needs to do to protect it. The Oconee County meeting at the courthouse in Watkinsville focused on the limits state and federal regulations place on where the County can find water to put into its reservoir.

The Water Council meeting was intended to give residents a chance to comment on a Statewide Comprehensive Water Plan.

The Oconee County meeting on January 17th was to give citizens a chance to ask questions about two large reservoir projects that will draw water from the Oconee watershed. The County did not discuss plans to conserve that water, discourage its use, or guarantee that an adequate supply is put back into the rivers for downstream use.

The Georgia Water Council meeting was to obtain comments on the fourth objectives of the statewide master plan: protecting water quality. The other three are minimizing water withdrawal through conservation, reuse and efficiency, maximizing return of water to basins from which it was drawn, and meeting water demands.

One of the proposal of particular importance to those of us concerned about protection of the streams of the County is a call for increased resources for the EPD for stream monitoring.

April Ingle, executive director of the Georgia River Network, who has worked with us in our efforts to protect Barber Creek, spoke in favor in this proposal. I followed her comments and indicated how important monitoring is for Barber Creek.

I told the Council–and reminded Dr. Couch–that we have asked the EPD to modify the permit it has drafted for Oconee County’s proposed expansion of the Rocky Branch sewage plant. That permit would allow the County to discharge 1 million gallons per of plant effluent into Barber Creek.

At the December 12 hearing on the permit and subsequently, we submitted a petition signed by at least 45 residents asking the EPD to guarantee it will conduct independent sampling of Barber Creek on an unannounced basis at least once every three months during each year if it grants the permit.

I also reminded Dr. Couch that we asked that the permit be changed to allow Oconee County to discharge into Barber Creek only when the creek is at normal stage and to require the County to treat the water to drinking level quality.

The EPD should announce its decision on the draft permit at any time.

About 110 people attended the meeting last night at the Georgia Center. Many of them were government officials. Included were Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis and Chris Thomas, assistant Oconee County Utility Department director.
April and I were among the 13 who spoke.

The first was Les Reed of Save Lake Oconee’s Waters. He would not have been happy had he attended the meeting on the 17th in Oconee County.

Reed said Lake Oconee and the Oconee River already are getting an inadequate supply of water and asked that no more water be taken from the River.

Both of the reservoirs Oconee County is considering building would do just that. One would draw water from the Oconee directly; the other would take water from the Apalachee, which flows into the Oconee.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Written 1/18/2007

Citizens Pose Lots of Questions at Hearing

About 60 people attended the meeting last night to learn more about the County’s plans for water treatment. The County did a nice job of allowing questions, and there were many. The meeting lasted about two hours.

What is clear is that the County at present plans to pick between two expensive, large projects, one in Walton County and the other in Oconee. Other options were acknowledged but dismissed as not suitable by the two consultants who spoke, William Martello of Jordan Jones & Goulding and Jimmy Parker of Precision Planning.

This is not much of a surprise. Martello developed the Oconee project; Parker is involved with the Walton project.

Costs are more than $100 million in both cases.

County Commission Chairman Melvin Davis said the County is going to decide in the next month or two what it wants to do.

Davis, Martello and Parker argued that the County is going to run out of water soon. The data to support that were sketchy. At one point, Wayne Provost, the director of strategic and long-range planning for the County, said the County had never linked those projections to land use plans. He acknowledged that the current plans do not even call for water services to be provided throughout the County.

Martello said he was using the high projections for population growth and acknowledged that the County has not been growing at the rate to match these projections. He said he did not want to be conservative.

Several of us asked why the County has not considered integrating its sewage treatment and water treatment plants, since they use the same basic technology to treat water and the County has been arguing that the product of its existing and proposed sewage plants is "near drinking level quality."

We had to ask the question several times. Finally, the answer was that the County officials and consultants do not believe the people of this County are smart enough to understand that one way or the other we are reusing water and will be doing so in the future.

Residents of the County will be willing to drink the treated sewage water from other counties (such as Clarke County, which is upstream of the planned Barnett Shoals reservoir), but they will not be willing to drink their own treated sewage water, we were told.

The irony is that, if either of these reservoirs is built, and if the County expands the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant as it proposes, dumping treated sewage water into both Barber Creek and the Apalachee, we would be drinking our own sewage water regardless of which of the two proposed reservoirs we would draw from.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered–but repeatedly asked–question of the night was: How is the County going to pay for either of these reservoirs.

The answer, we were told, has not yet been developed.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Written on 1/14/2007

Important to Attend Two Upcoming Meetings

Two important meetings are taking place this week and next, both on Wednesday evenings.

At 7 p.m. on January 17, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners (BOC) will hold a hearing on plans for a water reservoir at the courthouse in Watkinsville.

From 5:30 to 8 p.m. on January 24, The Georgia Water Council will discuss statewide water management in Masters Hall at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education, 1197 S. Lumpkin St., on the UGA campus.

Stories about the January 17 meetings have appeared in all three papers. All indicate the County is seeking citizen input on two reservoir options. The County could go forward with its previously announced plans to build a reservoir on Barnett Shoals road, or it could join Walton County in construction of a reservoir on Hard Labor Creek. The County pulled out of the Walton County project last year in favor of the Barnett Shoals project.

Likely County Already Decided

The stories have said this is an opportunity for citizens to express their views of the options, but it seems clear the County has already made its choice. The January 11 edition of the Oconee Enterprise contains a legal notice of the hearing, which would not be required if this were merely a discussion of options.

The story in the January 11 issue of The Oconee Leader, which quotes BOC Chairman Melvin Davis extensively, suggests this is a public hearing on the County’s decision to rejoin Walton County.

Both options involve more than $100 million in County expenditures. Apparently not up for discussion is not going forward with either of these projects.

According to the story in the Leader, the County used 2.6 million gallons per day of water in 2005. At one place in the article, Chairman Davis is quoted as saying the County might need 12 million gallons per day in 2050. He also is quoted as saying the County "probably will need more water in 2013 or 2014" than it can get from the Bear Creek reservoir in Jackson County.

The Bear Creek reservoir first started supplying water in 2002 to Barrow, Clarke, Jackson and Oconee counties. According to the web site of the engineering company Golder, which provided construction monitoring for the reservoir, the 505-acre reservoir and treatment plant have a capacity of 45 million gallons of water per day.

Water "Needed" to Encourage Growth

Chairman Davis said the County "needs" more water for growth. That, of course, is what the decision on January 17 will focus on: how to develop a water source to encourage more growth in the County.

More water coming into the County means more water flowing to its two sewage treatment plants, including the plant on Rocky Branch road. The County is seeking a permit at present to discharge 1 million gallons per day of water from that plant into Barber Creek. The County is considering expanding that plant to 4 million gallons per day of discharge in the future.

To build the Barnett Shoals reservoir, the County would need a permit to draw water out of the Oconee River. The Hard Labor Creek reservoir would draw water from the Apalachee River. The Bear Creek Reservoir currently takes its water from the Middle Oconee.

The Georgia Water Council meeting on January 24 at the Georgia Center is part of an effort to create a statewide Water Management Plan. The Water Council is a coordinating committee created by the Georgia 2004 Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Planning Act, which mandates the development of a statewide plan.

EPD Has Four Objectives

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), with the oversight of the Water Council, has developed four major water management objectives: (1) Minimize withdrawals of water by increasing conservation, reuse, and efficiency, (2) Maximize the return of water to river basins, (3) meeting water demands through efficient surface water storage and aquifer management, and (4) protecting water quality by reducing discharges of pollutants to streams and runoff from land.

At the meeting, the Water Council will present draft policy recommendations on water quality and take comments on policy options to be addressed by the Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Plan.

The first half hour of the meeting will give participants an opportunity to view displays and materials related to the water planning process.

Some of the Water Council objectives seem at odds with those of Oconee County.

Oconee County is trying to develop a demand for treated water from its Rocky Branch sewage plant for use in lawn irrigation. When there is no demand because of heavy rains, the treated sewage water will go into Barber Creek, where it ultimately will flow to the Middle Oconee and Oconee. When these streams might benefit from increased volume, in other words, they will not get it.

Integration of Water and Sewage Treatment

An option the County has not discussed is integrating its sewage treatment and water treatment facilities to make maximum use of the limited water resource.

That would require the County to treat its sewage water to drinking level quality. It can be done, but it will not be done if the County is allowed to discharge lesser quality water into Barber Creek and allowed to encourage, rather than discourage, the use of water for lawn irrigation.

Please try to attend both of these meetings and to raise questions at both about how we can use and protect all our streams, not just Barber Creek.