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.

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