Monday, October 08, 2007

Written 10/08/2007

Water on the Mind

The drought seems finally to have focused almost everyone’s attention on water, or the lack of it.

Consider the following:

*The local papers contain stories nearly every day on the possibility that Oconee and its neighboring counties will run out of water before the end of the year and on the actions local officials have taken in the hopes that the water lasts at least that long.

*Local partners of the state-wide Georgia Water Coalition will hold a meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday (October 11) at the Foundry Park Inn Ballroom, 295 E. Dougherty St., in Athens to discuss the state’s first-ever effort to create a water plan for Georgia.

*Oconee County officials are using the drought to justify the County’s decision to join with Walton County to build the $350 million Hard Labor Creek reservoir in Walton County.

The discussion hasn’t focused much attention yet on what local officials could have done to prevent the current crisis or on whether the actions now being taken will prevent such a crisis from occurring again in the future.

An editorial in the October 7 issue of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, however, has started pointing fingers.

The villain is a mismatch between the water resources of the state and the demands being placed on those resources by development, according to the editorial.

"Georgians can no longer pretend that unchecked growth and the profligate water consumption it fosters can continue indefinitely without exacting a heavy toll," according to the editorial.

The current crisis, the editorial argues, is partly the result of the state’s "unwillingness to recognize the impact of our actions on the state’s limited water resources."

The Hard Labor Creek reservoir project is an interesting case to consider. This reservoir is not designed to address current needs, but rather to provide for future development in the County.

Hard Labor Creek was projected to cost Oconee County $45.6 million in January of 2007, $48.2 million on September 4, when the intergovernmental contract was approved by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners, and $49.8 million on October 4 when the BOC voted to approve a bond contract to cover its portion of the costs.

Only Commissioner Chuck Horton voted against the bond motion, which actually authorized up to $66 million in bond sales, in case the current estimate of $49.8 million is too low. That figure includes $2.9 million Oconee County owes Walton County for money already spent.

The County didn’t even know how much it owed Walton County for past spending when the BOC approved the intergovernmental agreement a month earlier. And the figure, the BOC was told on October 4 by County Attorney Dan Haygood, is still not based on audited expenses, so it could go higher.

Charlie Baugh, president of Citizens for Oconee’s Future and a former Internal Revenue Service auditor, estimates that at 4.4% interest, the County would actually pay $119 million over 30 years for the $66 million, should it borrow that amount.

On September 4, Commissioner Margaret Hale joined Horton in opposing the intergovernmental agreement. Board of Commission Chairman Melvin Davis had to break the tie by joining Commissioners Jim Luke and Don Norris in supporting the agreement.

Whether the final cost is $49.8 million, $66 million, or something even higher, it is supposed to be paid for by growth in the demand for water in the county resulting from future development. Specifically, the demand for water must growth at the rate of at least 8% per year to pay for the reservoir. At present, the County’s population is growing at less than 3% per year.

Most of the water the Oconee County Utility Department sells to its current customers comes from another reservoir, on Bear Creek in Jackson County. Despite the lingering drought, officials from the four counties that run the reservoir–Clarke, Barrow, Jackson and Oconee–did not take dramatic steps to save water until September 13.

On that date, the Upper Oconee Basin Water Operations Committee voted to issue a total ban on outdoor watering effective four days later.

The Committee was just a step ahead of the state. Dr. Carol A. Couch, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, banned outdoor residential water use on September 28 for the four counties and most of the rest of the northern part of the state.

According to former BOC Chairman Wendell Dawson, who says he obtained invoices from the Oconee County Utility Department, Oconee County even sold Walton County 11.3 million gallons of water for a 34-day billing period ending September 27, 2007. According to Dawson, Oconee County sold 87.1 million gallons of water to Walton County in the last six months, when the drought was firmly in place.

So why were Oconee and other officials so slow to take action as the drought progressed?

Selling water is how the counties get the money to build and operate reservoirs and water treatment plants.

For reasons that probably only The Oconee Enterprise editors understand, the paper has given former Oconee County Utility Department head Gary Dodd space for a column in the paper now that he is retired. In addition to using the column to attack critics of the department he headed until this summer, he also is using the column to brag about his accomplishments.

In his October 4, 2007, column, he bragged about the following: "(T)he Utility Department has operated in the black , without a price increase on consumption for the past 8 eights." Not coincidentally, Dodd was Utility Department director during those years.

It is difficult to balance the budget if people stop using water, either because of a ban on watering or because of an imposition of conservation pricing, which pushes down demand by charging a higher rate at higher levels of water consumption. Oconee County does not use conservation pricing.

The impact of the present ban on outdoor watering on water sales and on Oconee County’s ability to pay its expenses through water sales has not been a topic for open discussion just yet. Jackson County, even before the current ban, however, ran into problems making its payments on its indebtedness because of inadequate revenue, according to reporting in the Athens Banner-Herald late this summer.

Counties have few options to make up for lost sales. They can increase water rates, or they can shift the burden onto property owners through higher property taxes.

To pay off current indebtedness and then to finance construction of the Hard Labor Creek reservoir, Oconee County projects it will need for water sales to increase the 8% each year. That includes 2007. Given the current water ban, growth of any sort is unlikely in 2007.

Which helps to explain why the County was so slow in going to the total ban.

Anyone who might have doubted that the decision to move forward with the Hard Labor Creek reservoir was based on a desire to stimulate development only needed to attend the September 4 BOC Meeting.

Amrey Harden, president of Oconee State Bank, Chuck Williams, president of North Georgia Bank, and Charles Grimes, president of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, each took their turn to urge the Commissioners to go forward with the project to promote development.

The message likely was directed at Horton and Hale, who still voted against the project. They probably can expect some candidates who got the point to run against them in next Spring’s Republican primary.

The BOC makes lots of routine decision that also have impact on water sales. On August 7 the Board voted (with Horton and Luke in the minority) to approve a rezone request for a development including 196 houses on Old Barnett Shoals road in the far eastern part of the County.

Included was the agreement to extend a water line across the Oconee River to the development. The availability of water will open this area up for additional rezone requests.

The BOC, the current water ban shows, was offering to sell water it doesn’t always have.

The same can be said for efforts of Oconee and Clarke counties to lure a big manufacturer to the Orkin Tract on U.S. 78 and S.R. 316. Included in offers have been the agreement to provide both water and sewage services.

The Georgia legislature mandated the creation of a statewide Water Management Plan back in 2004.

The Georgia Water Coalition, an alliance of over 110 organizations committed to ensuring that water is managed fairly for all Georgians and protected for future generations, has been in existence since 2002.

The Coalition has asked the state to set safe levels of withdrawal from the state’s streams to guarantee their biological, chemical, and physical integrity. The goal is to leave the streams with the water necessary to keep the ecosystems functioning properly. The Coalition wants to require local governments to evaluate and implement conservation measures before increased water withdrawals are allowed.

In sum, the Coalition wants to focus on conservation and maintenance of stream flow, rather than simply allowing the government that gets the water into a reservoir first to have what it wants.

Friends of Barber Creek is part of the Georgia Water Coalition.

The meeting on Thursday, October 11, will give citizens a chance to learn about the state’s Water Management Plan and Coalition efforts to make sure that water conservation, rather than simply water consumption, are taken into consideration.

Governments that promote and finance their development through the sale of water aren’t very likely to make conservation a top priority, as the current response to the drought illustrates.

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