Thursday, February 22, 2007

Written 2/22/2007

Commissioners Given Options for Future Water Needs

The Oconee County Board of Commissions received three alternative proposals at its meeting Tuesday night to the two $100 million reservoir projects already under review.

I also presented to the commissioners my analysis of water demand, which shows that the County’s estimates almost certainly significantly overestimate water demand.

About 70 people attended the meeting at the courthouse, which lasted about 90 minutes and ended without any decision by the Board.

Ken McMichael, a member of the Jasper County Water and Sewer Authority, invited the Commissioners to partner with his county in a project on the South River. Jasper County is southeast of Atlanta.

Oconee County resident John Washington, an expert on subsurface water, recommended that the County consider drilling additional wells to tap available water.

Trey Thompson, another Oconee County resident, briefed the Commissioners on a proposed reservoir on Jack’s Creek in Walton County. Jack’s Creek flows to the Apalachee near southern part of Oconee County.

All three of these alternative sources would provide Oconee County with water at a much cheaper rate than either of the two reservoirs the County is considering, according to the presenters.

The consultant Oconee County hired to review water options, Jordan Jones & Goulding, recommended the County either build a reservoir in the County on Barnett Shoals road or join with Walter County in a reservoir project on Hard Labor Creek. Both projects would cost more than $100 million in 2007 dollars.

Three of those who spoke on Tuesday night, including Oconee County Chamber of Commerce President Charles Grimes, applauded the Commissioners for seeking additional water to accommodate future growth of the County. None recommended a specific project.

No one who spoke at the meeting criticized the County for being concerned about future water needs. Critics challenged the idea that the decision had to be made urgently.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis said at an earlier hearing on water on January 17 that the County needed to make a decision quickly because Walton County wanted an answer to its request that Oconee partner with it.

The Walton project has been plagued by controversy. McMichael referred to it as a "real estate project" rather than a water reservoir on Tuesday night. Thompson provided the Commissioners with a letter from retired president and founder of Jordan Jones & Goulding, Charles Jones, criticizing the reservoir.

Thompson also gave the Commissioners letters from the city manager of Social Circle and the city manager of Loganville raising questions about the cost of water from the Walton reservoir and expressing interest in a Jack’s Creek option. Both cities are in Walton County.

I summarized for the Commissioners my analysis of population growth, which shows that the County’s estimates of growth are more than likely high by about 29,000 persons. Oconee County had only 29,748 persons living here in 2005, according to the Census Bureau estimates.

My analysis is in my posting below of 2/18/2007.

At the meeting on Tuesday night night, Commissioner Jim Luke asked me if my projections took into consideration that most of the people moving to the County would be using County water.

In fact, my projections assume everyone moving to the County would be using County water. I do not believe that is a correct assumption, since the County has said not all parts of the County will have water service in the near future. But it is the assumption the County has made in its projections, and I followed that lead.

In justifying its argument that there is urgency, the County used population projections for growth in each of the next five year periods (2005 to 2010, 2010 to 2015, and 2015 to 2020) at 30.65%. My argument is that a much more reasonable estimate is 13.43%, which reflects estimated growth over the last five years.

The 30.65% rate would mean that the population of the County would be 67,065 in 2015, or more than double what it was in 2005.

I then used the more reasonable growth rate of 13.43% and multiplied it by the current water use of 2.7 million gallons per day. From that, I reach an estimate of needed water at 3.1 MGD in 2010, 3.5 MGD in 2015, and 4.0 MGD in 2020.

This was exactly the same procedure used in creating the Water Supply/Demand Projections by the County. The County started with 2.7 MGD of water being used currently and use the growth rate of 30.65% to get its estimates, namely 3.5 MGD in 2010, 4.6 MGD in 2015, and 6.0 MGD in 2020.

So my assumption, which I think even exaggerates use, was exactly the same as the one the County used.

Commissioner Luke next asked me if I took into consideration industrial use. My answer is that the County will have 6 MGD of water starting in 2014 or 2015, and in 2020 the County will have a demand for only 4 MGD.

If we add in the 1 MGD from the Rocky Branch sewage plant, which the County says will be in the system (as reuse water to replace lawn watering), the County actually will have 7 MGD of water.

The largest likely industrial user would be one at the Orkin tract at SR 316 and US 78. Utility Department Director Gary Dodd said on Tuesday night that had the pharmaceutical firm Novartis located its plant at the site, as the County had hoped it would, at the end of its fifth and final stage of projected growth, it would have needed 1 MGD. It would have needed only 200,000 gallons per day at start-up.

Mr. Luke also asked me if I took into consideration growth rates for water usage. Mr. Dodd is quoted in The Oconee Leader issue of February 15, 2007, as saying the County is experiencing growth rates of 6-7 percent per year in water usage.

The County’s consultants apparently did not believe this figure, for they did not use it in their projections.

Commissioner Luke told me after the meeting that he also believed the County’s population estimates were exaggerated. He said his concern was with industrial and commercial growth.

The population estimates are important, however, as they are the basis for projections on how the County will pay off the debt for whatever project it selects.

According to stories in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Athens Banner-Herald on July 19, 2006, when the state announced Novartis was not coming to the Orkin tract, the state and local governments had offered $61 million in incentives to the firm to get it to locate here.
Of that amount, $20 million was for local tax breaks. Oconee and Clarke counties also offered incentives in terms of water, sewage and roads.

Russ Page, a local farmer who has worked to protect farmland in the County, reminded the Commissioners on Tuesday night that a growing population not only needs more water. It needs more of almost every kind of service, including roads, sewers and schools.

If the County decides to spend more than $100 million on a reservoir, it is only the beginning, because the only way to pay for the project is to make sure the County grows enough to keep up with the projections that were used to justify it.

That, in turn, will require more spending on roads, sewers, schools, and other services. The list goes on.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Written 2/18/2007

County Uses Inflated Population Figures to Justify Water Needs

Oconee County officials, in an effort to justify spending more than $100 million on a new reservoir, are using population growth estimates for the County that are certainly too high.

If the County estimates were correct, 37,317 more people would be living in Oconee County in 2015 than lived here in 2005, bringing the total population for the County to 67,065. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 29,748 lived here in 2005.

A more likely figure for 2015, based on the estimated rate of growth in the County since 2000, is 38,275. From 2000 to 2005, the Census Bureau estimates that the population of Oconee County grew 13.43%.

If that same growth rate is used to calculate the rate of growth in water demand–which seems reasonable given that Oconee County has almost no industrial users–Oconee County would need 3.1 million gallons of water per day in 2010 and 3.5 million gallons of water per day in 2015.

The County will have 6 million gallons of water per day available to it in 2015, or nearly two times as much as it needs. In 2020, supply would exceed demand by 2 million gallons per day.

The County is using only about 2.7 million gallons per day of water at present.

The County, by using the much higher estimate of population growth, has projected that Oconee County’s demand for water will equal the supply in 2020. This is the justification for proposing that the County spend more than $100 million for one of two reservoir projects, one in Walton County and the other in Oconee County.

The County also is using the high population growth and demand figures to argue that it can afford to pay off the debt associated with these new projects. If the population figure are wrong–as they almost certainly are–the projections about the County’s ability to pay for the $100 million reservoirs are wrong as well.

The consequence for the County could be significant.

The estimates of population growth I’ve calculated for the 2000 to 2005 period are based on data the County put on its web site after the February 8 meeting on the proposed reservoirs. I also have gone back to the original source–the U.S. Census Bureau–to make sure the data are correct and to obtain additional information.

The high end estimates of population growth the County is using to justify the reservoir projects are shown on the County’s web site.

Russ Page, who has been active with a number of citizen groups, including Friends of Barber Creek, challenged the County on the population growth estimates at the first meeting on the reservoirs the County held on January 17, 2007. Russ said he thought the growth projections, which come from Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center, located in Athens, already have proven to be inaccurate.

William Martello, with County consulting firm Jordan Jones & Goulding, said the RDC provides three population projections, offering low, moderate and high estimates. He said the County was using the high projections because it did not want to underestimate demand.

The data on the County web site show that the low population estimate for 2005 was about 5,000 people below the Census Bureau estimate for the County that year, while the moderate estimate was about 1,400 higher than the 2005 figure. The high estimate, however, overestimated the County’s population by 9,500.

The reason for the projection error is simple. Both the moderate and high estimates are based on percentage increases in population in the County when it had very few people. Consequently, the addition of even a small number of people represented a large percentage of growth. As the population base has increased, the addition of new residents has represented smaller percentage growth rates.

In 1990, the Census Bureau counted 17,618 persons living in Oconee County. In 2000, the count was 26,225, an increase of 8,607 people, and a growth rate of 48.9%. If that same number of people is added to the County by 2010, the population would be 34,832, for a growth of 32.8%.

If this growth rate of 32.8% is used rather than my estimate above, the population of Oconee County in 2015 still would be below the moderate estimate and significantly below the high estimate the County is using to project water needs.

The Census Bureau estimated of the Oconee County population for 2005 based on birth rates, death rates, and estimates of migration to the County. The population estimates for larger counties also include new field sample data. Oconee County does not qualify for this kind of additional data, but neighboring Clarke does.

Since the Census Bureau makes new estimates for counties each year, it is possible to compare projected growth for each year from 2000 to 2005, the most recent data for which estimates are available. Growth rates actually were slightly lower in 2005 and 2004 than in 2003, but, in all three years, they round to 3%.

There is no evidence of dramatic change in growth rates in recent years, and there is evidence that the rate can decline year-to-year. The slowdown in the housing market at present might well result in a decline in the growth rate.

The population estimates, of course, are for the whole County, but only part of the County is provided water by the County Utility Department. At the January 17 meeting, one member of the audience asked if the County took this into consideration in making the projections. The answer was that it did not. The data the County put on the web site also do not reflect this fact.

The County has stated, in responses on the web site to questions posed at the February 8 meeting, that it does not plan to offer water in the future to the southern part of the County.

Consequently, the estimates of demand for water used by the County and used by me above exaggerate the actual demand.

These estimates of growth, as noted, are tied to estimates of income from water the County sells to its customers. In an article in the February 15, 2007, issue of The Oconee Leader, the County said it is projecting growth of 6 to 7 percent (presumably per year) in its customer base in making calculations of the County’s ability to pay for the proposed reservoirs.

Such a figure, as indicated above, would be more than twice the rate of population growth in the County in recent years.

The County, on the web site, indicated it has approximately 7,800 customers at present.

The County web site also contains a number of other surprises. Despite the lower price tag for a reservoir on Jack’s Creek than the other two projects, the County says the Jack’s Creek site exceeds "affordability," while the others do not.

The County also labels suggestions that it integrate planning for its wastewater treatment facility and drinking water treatment facility as a "toilet to faucet" proposal. The proposed wastewater plant on Rocky Branch road will produce 1 million gallons per day of water treated to "reuse" standards.

Friends of Barber Creek has asked the state Environment Protection Division to require the County to treat the water to drinking level standards. The County plans to sell the "reuse" water for use in lawn and other irrigation as an alternative to fully treated water. As a consequence, it should be subtracted from the estimates of the County’s need for water.

Go to and click on Oconee County Future Water Sources Information for details of the County’s case for its new reservoirs.

Please write to your Commissioners and tell them how you feel about the proposed reservoirs. The contact information is below:

Melvin Davis,
Jim Luke,
Don Norris,
Margaret Hale,
Chuck Horton,

And please attend the meeting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 20, at the Courthouse in Watkinsville.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Written 2/15/2007

Most Important Decision Since 2002

No other decision the Oconee County Board of Commissioners has made since it decided to begin offering residential sewage service in late 2002 is likely to be as important as the decision the Board will be considering on Tuesday, February 20.

At that meeting, the Board, it now appears, will be asked to join Walton County in a reservoir project on Hard Labor Creek that will cost more than $100 million in 2007 dollars.

The 2002 decision on sewers has led to the hyperdevelopment now taking place in the County, with the 900-home Parkside master plan development project now coming online a prime example. Parkside, which lies between Mars Hill and Hog Mountain roads, will funnel even more traffic onto those already stressed thoroughfares and send more students to overcrowded schools.

A decision to spend more than $100 million on a reservoir will spur more development, probably along U.S. 441, since the corridor between Hog Mountain Road and SR 316 now is nearly built out. This new development, in turn, will further stress County resources, such as the schools, the sheriff’s office and the volunteer fire service.

Huge infrastructure projects such as the planned sewage plant on Rocky Branch Road and the reservoir are billed as a response to development, but they are actually the cause of it. In order to pay for the sewers, the County passed a master plan development ordinance to encourage high-density development.

I remember a conversation I had with Wayne Provost, then head of planning in the County and now director of strategic and long-range planning, when the MPD was being discussed. "Not everyone wants a house with a three-quarter acre lot," he said. The County needed to allow higher density projects in order to continue to develop, the argument went.

The sewers were to spur development, not respond to it.

In order to pay for the water reservoir to be discussed on Tuesday night, the County will have to run water to parts of the County not presently served, such as to the south along U.S. 441. The water lines will be to encourage future development, since only with such development will the County be able to pay for the reservoir.

County officials don’t like to talk about infrastructure development in this way. They always say development is inevitable and they must respond to it. My guess is they know most people are not in favor of the break-neck pace of development they have brought to the County.

Elected officials also know that few voters like tax increases, which infrastructure projects usually require.

At the January 17 meeting held to discuss water options, no one could–or would--answer questions about how the projects would be financed. In an article in the February 15 edition of The Oconee Leader, Board Chairman Melvin Davis offered only options, including the spending of special interest tax revenues, rather than a specific plan.

A glance around the County gives a sense of how quickly tax revenues are being spent. We have a new jail under construction. A new recreational facility is in the works. If the County gets its permit to begin dumping treated sewage water into Barber Creek, it will begin construction of a new sewage plant.

The February 15 issue of the Athens Banner-Herald indicates that the County may be asking for tax increases in the future to spend on much needed road improvements.

To lessen the burden on those of us already living here, County officials will encourage construction of even more residential units, even though residential development does not produce tax revenue sufficient to offset its demand for services.

The cycle will then continue. The increase in water coming into the County will bring about the need for larger sewage plants and more roads and more schools and more jails and a larger courthouse and bigger roads. And more sewage water being dumped into such streams as Barber Creek.

The irony is that most of us moved to Oconee County in the hopes that some of the rural character and quality of life that brought us here would be retained.

Melvin Davis, who is both the chief County executive and chairman of the legislative body, the Board of Commissioners, is the one pushing for a decision now on the reservoir project. In fact, he has been the chief advocate for most of the development projects in the County. The article in The Leader makes it clear he wants the Board of Commissioners to join the Hard Labor Creek reservoir project in Walton County.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the four members of the Commission told him it was time to slow down, consider all the options, examine some of the smaller reservoir projects on the table, and give some serious thought to water conservation?

I urge you to write to the Commissioners immediately and encourage them to show some independence. One option would be for them to appoint a citizen group to review the different reservoir plans. The County at present is relying on the advice of consultants who stand to gain most from big projects.

Here is the contact information for the Commissioners:

Jim Luke,
Don Norris,
Margaret Hale,
Chuck Horton,

If at all possible, attend the meeting on the 20th and tell the Commissioners how you feel about the pace of development in the County and the need for a go-slow approach to such a mammoth project. Bring a neighbor or two if you can. The meeting starts at 7 p.m.