Sunday, January 13, 2008

Written 1/13/2008

Decide First, Then I'll Tell You What I Wanted You To Do

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners, saying it does not want to tell the Georgia General Assembly in advance how it feels about key water issues in the state, has refused to take action on a resolution presented to it by the Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek.

At the January 3, 2008, meeting, the Commissioners said they were not ready to tell the legislature how they feel about comprehensive regional and statewide water planning and monitoring.

They also said they were not ready to ask the legislature to pass a statute that prevents the transfer of water from one basin to another to the detriment of current and future downstream economic growth or to the detriment of the natural health of the stream.

And they were not even ready to tell the legislature whether it was important that elected local government officials should be represented on regional water councils that will decide how water resources are allocated in the state.

"I certainly believe there needs to be local representation on those committees, otherwise the state is left to pass down any kind of mandate to local government," Commissioner Chuck Horton said. "I’m a little bit reluctant to say I want to vote tonight because I haven’t seen the initial part of what I think probably will happen in Atlanta."

"I might be prepared to pass the strongest of these resolutions," Commissioner Jim Luke responded. "But with the information I have, I am not prepared to vote for any of them before I see more about what is going to happen at the state level."

"It is entirely too much uncertainty to proceed at this time and make decisions," Commissioner Don Norris said.

"I agree," said Commissioner Margaret Hale. "It is nice to have the resolutions in front of us that have been worked on. But I think we are all in agreement that it is just too early. We need to wait and see what the state is going to do. I propose that we delay this, delay a vote on this."

"I think with no motion that in effect squares with what the Board desires to do at this particular time," Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis said in conclusion.

With that, the Board dismissed the resolution presented to it by the Friends of Barber Creek as well as two others that had been prepared by County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault.

Twenty-nine governments around the state, including Athens-Clarke County, have passed resolutions of the sort Oconee County refused to consider.

The Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek first asked the Board to consider the draft resolution, written by the Georgia Water Coalition, of which Friends of Barber Creek is a partner, in a letter of November 23, 2007.

I appeared at BOC meetings of November 27 and December 4, asking that the Board at least put the issue on its agenda for discussion.

On December 13, 2007, Chairman Davis wrote me a letter, saying that the "Board of Commissioners appreciates" my bringing the resolution before it, but "we respectively believe it is not in the best interest of Oconee County to consider this proposed resolution..."

That letter provided me with the tip about the unposted BOC meeting on December 7 in Madison, Georgia. My open records request subsequently uncovered the meeting and indicated that the Board had discussed the Georgia Water Coalition resolution at that time.

At the December 18 meeting or the BOC, I challenged the Board to "take action in public on this issue." I also said the Board was free to modify the original resolution to reflect local concerns.

At 11:10 a.m. on December 28, I filed my open records request regarding that meeting. County Clerk Gina Lindsey sent out an agenda for the January 3 meeting at 2:42 p.m.on December 28 that did not contain the Georgia Water Coalition resolution. She sent out a revised agenda at 4:57 p.m. on that date that did.

County Administrative Officer Theriault drafted two alternate resolutions. One eliminated the interbasin transfer references and simply called on the state to fully fund comprehensive regional and statewide water planning and monitoring.

The other also eliminated the interbasin transfer references and added two options regarding local representation on the regional water and planning councils.

The Athens Banner-Herald ran a story on January 3 about those resolutions, but it never followed up to indicate that the Board refused to consider any of them at that meeting.

Chairman Davis raised the issue of interbasin transfer with me in a telephone conversation on November 29, two days after my initial appearance before the BOC regarding the resolution.

He said the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Project–a collaboration between Walton and Oconee Counties–was an example of an interbasin transfer and had been approved by the state Environmental Protection Division.

Chairman Davis reiterated this position in his letter to me of December 13. He wrote:

"We also have concerns with the Interbasin Transfer portion of the resolution. Currently, there are over 25 permits issued by EPD permitting Interbasin Transfers. Oconee currently has voted to participate in the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir project (approved by EPD), which is also an Interbasin Transfer."

On 12/19, I sent this e-mail message to Davis:

"Perhaps it would be easier for me and other members of our Board to understand your concern, and the concern of the other commissioners, over the interbasin transfer language of the Georgia Water Coalition draft resolution if we saw the application for the permit the County has for drawing water from the Apalachee and the permit itself. Would you be willing to make these available to me for review and copying?"

Davis never responded to that request, so I asked for these materials in a separate open records request I filed on December 28 with the open records request regarding the December 7 meeting.

The permit, which I received on January 3, shows that Oconee County lost its 2003 permit to withdraw 1.8 million gallons per day of water from the Apalachee River when it decided to join the Hard Labor Creek project.

If water from the Apalachee is to be pumped to the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir, as is planned, the counties will need a new permit from the state EPD to do so.

"If Oconee County elects to participate in Hard Labor Creek Reservoir, this permitted withdrawal allocation will become void once the reservoir project is completed and in service," the 2003 permit states.

Because Walton County straddles the Ocmulgee and Oconee river basins, the transfer of water from the Apalachee, a part of the Oconee basin, to Walton County is an interbasin transfer. In addition, the reservoir will be built on Hard Labor Creek, which drains into the Oconee basin.

Water transferred to western Walton County from Hard Labor Creek and from the Apalachee and not returned represents a transfer of water from the Oconee basin.

This is the kind of interbasin transfer that robs downstream communities of water and was opposed by the Georgia Water Coalition resolution.

On January 8, the Georgia Water Council–the state governmental body dealing with water–created 11 regional water planning districts.

Walton County became a part of the Metro Atlanta district, while Oconee County is in the Upper Oconee district.

The Metro Atlanta district also includes Hall and Gwinnett counties. In each case, a part of the county is in the Oconee basin, giving Atlanta access to Oconee River basin water upstream from Oconee County.

Bear Creek, on which lies the reservoir which currently serves Barrow, Clarke, Jackson and Oconee counties, is in the Oconee basin.

Had the Oconee Commissioners been more willing to have an open discussion of the Georgia Water Coalition resolution, some of these issues might have come to light.

That does not seem to be what Chairman Davis and the Commissioners wanted.