Saturday, July 30, 2011

Heritage Park Trails To Be Closed for Mitigation Work for Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Project

Horse Droppings An Issue

Hikers, bikers and horseback riders will be barred from using the trails at Heritage Park in the south of the county beginning on Monday as the Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir Management Board begins a $1 million stream restoration and preservation project at the park.

All trails in the park will be closed until construction work is completed, which will be in late November, if all goes to schedule.

Construction teams will put up plastic mesh fencing around all trail heads, John Gentry, director of parks and recreation for Oconee County, told me on Thursday, in an effort to keep people from using the wooded part of the park during the construction.

Hikers To Be Crossed Out Too

Gentry said the county considered partial closing of the trails but decided it was a “safety issue” and needed to keep people away from the heavy equipment and construction sites.

The pavilion and public space at the front of the park, on U.S. 441 south of Farmington, will remain open during the construction, Gentry said.

The Oconee County Parks and Recreation Department web site contained an announcement of the closing of the trails this past week, but I saw no signs at the park this morning announcing the closing.

Oconee County is contributing 28.8 percent of the funding for the Hard Labor Creek reservoir project, which amounts to just less than $300,000 of the total cost of $1,031,792 for the work at Heritage park.

The money comes from a $19.5 million bond the county sold in March of 2008.

Walton County is responsible for the remaining 71.2 percent of costs.

The stream restoration and preservation project is one of three connected with the HLC reservoir construction on land owned by Oconee County.

The HLC board has completed a $526,747 project at the county’s Rocky Branch Land Application System sewage treatment facility on Rocky Branch Road and a $476,371 project at Veterans Park on Hog Mountain Road.

A fourth project in Oconee County is on 47 acres of land owned by the Walton County Water and Sewage Authority on the Apalachee River west of Lake Oconee Road and south of U.S. 78.

That project, to restore wetlands, cost $230,545 and is now complete.

The reservoir is to be created by a dam on Hard Labor Creek in southeastern Walton County and, when built, will flood and permanently destroy the creek, many of its tributaries and the wetlands surrounding these streams.

Naturally flowing streams and wetlands contribute to water purification and reuse.

For that reason, the federal government, which has jurisdiction over streams and wetlands in the U.S., requires, as part of the permitting process, that damage done to wetlands and streams must be mitigated by restoration of other streams and wetlands, usually in the same watershed.

The streams to be restored in Heritage Park are tributaries of the Apalachee River, which is a tributary of the Oconee River. Hard Labor Creek also is a tributary of the Apalachee River.

The streams on the LAS site and in Veterans Park are tributaries of Barber Creek, which feeds into McNutt Creek, the Middle Oconee River and then the Oconee River. The Apalachee also feeds into the Oconee River.

In total, Walton and Oconee counties are spending about $9 million to mitigate damages that will be done to streams and wetlands when they are flooded for the Hard Labor Creek reservoir.

As part of the restoration and preservation process for the streams in Heritage Park, the HLC management board and the county will put covenants on the land around the streams restricting future use.

Bikers and hikers still will be allowed to ford the streams in Heritage Park, but horses will not. As a result, all horse trail crossings will have to be bridged.

The goal is to keep horse droppings out of the creek, Gentry told me.

Those same covenants also are to be placed on the streams at the LAS site, but citizens do not have access to that facility.

The streams restored at Veterans Park are north of the developed area. They must remain protected in their current state in any future development of the park. (See slide show in column at right.)

Jimmy Parker, representing the management board, told the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on May 25, 2010, that the management board was going ahead with mitigation projects even though it does not have the money to actually build the reservoir.

All construction work on the reservoir is on hold because Walton and Oconee counties cannot afford to issue more bonds, given the current lack of demand for the water the reservoir will produce.

Parker, who works for PPI Inc. of Lawrenceville and serves as a consultant to the county as well as to the HLC management board, reminded the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night that the county will need to come up with $8.6 million as its share of the costs for dam construction.

Funds from the bonds already sold are being used largely to purchase the land that will be inundated by the reservoir and for the planning process, including for permitting and mitigation.

In a letter sent to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal in March, the Hard Labor Creek management board asked for $32 million in state money to build the dam.

The Georgia General Assembly earlier this year approved Gov. Deal’s request for $300 million in funding for reservoir projects in the wake of the ruling in July of 2009 by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson that Atlanta cannot continue to draw its drinking water from Lake Lanier.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling on June 28, and it is uncertain what impact the Appeals Court's decision will have on state funding for projects such as Hard Labor Creek.

The importance of state help with Hard Labor Creek construction was underscored by comments Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis made to a joint subcommittee of the state Water Supply Task Force on May 26 in Gainesville.

Those comments were reported on by The Gainesville Times on the day of the meeting and by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an article about the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir on June 5, but they did not receive attention in the media locally.

Davis, who is not a member of the reservoir management board but was a strong proponent of Oconee County’s joining Walton County on the project, gave a particularly negative forecast of the financial problems facing the county because of the reservoir.

A summary of those comments is available on the web site of the Water Supply Task Force.

Davis was an invited speaker before a Technology Subcommittee/Finance Subcommittee joint meeting of the Water Supply Task Force at the Georgia Mountains Center in Gainesville.

According to the summary, Chairman Davis told the subcommittees that Oconee County has funded its participation in the project with Walton County through utility system revenue bonds, but “the county is now at its maximum capacity.”

“Commissioner Davis stressed that poor economic conditions have impacted local revenue projections and thus limited local government borrowing capacity,” according to the summary.

Without any water to sell from a reservoir, the counties have no way to pay off the $59 million in debt they already have assumed other than by increasing water and sewer rates on existing customers or taking the funds from general revenues of the counties.

Oconee County has increased water rates for the last three years. A new rate increase went into effect on July 1 of this year.

In the fiscal year that started on July 1, of every dollar paid by county water customers to the county, 12.5 cents will go to the Hard Labor Creek debt repayment.

In fact, until 2015, the county is only paying the interest on the $19.5 million the county has borrowed for the project. After that point, it is scheduled to start paying principal as well.

When the loan is repaid in 2038, the county will have paid $38.4 million in principal and interest.

If Judge Magnuson’s ruling had been upheld, water customers in metro-Atlanta would have been glad to have paid Walton and Oconee counties for their water. The Appeals Court decision overturning Magnuson is under appeal.

Davis expressed reservations at the May 26 meeting about state direct investment in and ownership of reservoirs such as HLC.

“Ownership may one day result in an unanticipated diversion of water, which could inhibit local economic growth,” he is quoted as saying.

Davis told the subcommittee that Oconee and Walton counties are “evaluating all available mechanisms” to get funding for the HLC project, according to the report.

The two counties even have considered a public-private partnership for the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir and may further consider that mechanism in the future, Davis said, according to the report.

Gov. Deal directed the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority to convene the Water Supply Task Force to advise GEFA on water issues. One of the Task Forces assignments is to identify reservoir sites in the state.

A dam will produce a lake, which, according to the HLC web site, will enhance the quality of life of local residents, who “will gain a valuable recreational asset.”

Parker reminded the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night, however, that Oconee County will have to find another $22.4 million as its share of costs of construction of a water treatment plant and transmission facilities to get water from the reservoir to county water lines.

The Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir Management Board has seven members, four from Walton County and three from Oconee.

Oconee County Commissioner Jim Luke and Finance Director Jeff Benko are on the board, with Luke currently serving as board chairman.

Hank Huckaby, formerly the Oconee County representative in the Georgia House and now chancellor of the University System of Georgia, is the citizen representative.

Huckaby has told me on two occasions he plans to resign from the board, but the web site today still lists him as a member.

Huckaby was a strong proponent of the HLC project, and Chuck Williams, elected on July 19 in a special election to replace Huckaby, has said he will be as well.

I asked County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault and Gentry last week for access to the construction plans for the mitigation project at Heritage Park. Gentry was able to obtain an electronic set on Thursday from Precision Planning Inc. and give it to me.

I have selected out one of the maps and labeled it to provide a general overview of the trails and the work that will be done.

Gentry told me on Thursday that some bike and horse trails will have to be relocated out of the protected area around the streams once the streams are restored and designated for preservation.

Mike Riter, an expert on trails, will assist in that process, Gentry said.

Riter’s company, Trail Design Specialists of Snellville, provided the detailed maps of the bridges for the horse trails in the construction documents Gentry provided me.

Blount Construction Company Inc. of Marietta is the contractor for the Heritage Park project.


Xardox said...

How nice. Hopping bunnys, chirping birds, lovely trees, back to nature.
But, um, three hundred grand of over a million dollars from a reservoir-building bond (backed by taxpayers) from a project many miles away?
Ah, never mind.

Anonymous said...

Xardox, how myopic of 'ya. Do a little research on how tributaries, wetlands, streams, etc. affect water quality, and then you might think twice before ranting. They're important parts of the puzzle.

Beanne said...

As a horse rider, I think stream bank erosion where recreational trails enter streams is a much bigger issue than horse droppings. Erosion leads to increased sedimentation in the stream. This problem can be caused by all trail users (bikes, hikers), but the bridges being added to Heritage Park will help mitigate any damage due to horses. Thank you very much for the maps and for the information.