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.