Sunday, January 22, 2012

Oconee County Commissioners to Review Two-Year Water and Sewer Plan at Tuesday Meeting

Barber Creek Sewage Plant Off List

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners Tuesday night is scheduled to review water and wastewater treatment project priorities for the county as part of a proposed 2013-2014 Water and Sewer Improvements Plan.

Included will be a sewage line that could serve Zoom Bait, St. Mary’s Health Care and the Gordy tract, this time as part of a larger project providing sewage services in the northwestern part of the county, including Bogart.

Utility Department Director Chris Thomas told me late on Friday that he had been out walking along McNutt Creek that day in preparation for his presentation to the Board on Tuesday night.

Thomas said what is now being called the McNutt Creek Sewer Connector will be listed as a priority project, though he doesn’t necessarily expect the Board to approve going forward with all of it at this point.

Thomas said he expects the WASI Plan to follow the general guidelines for water and sewer projects he outlined to the Board of Commissioners last year.

Without fanfare, and with almost no media attention, Oconee County in 2011 shifted its approach to wastewater treatment.

This shift was outlined to the Board of Commissioners in two meetings, one in March and the other in July, by Thomas and Jimmy Parker, a consultant to the county from Precision Planning Inc. of Lawrenceville.

Gone are plans for a sewage plant at the site of the Rocky Branch Land Application facility on Barber Creek.

In fact, neither Thomas nor Parker made any mention of a proposed sewage treatment plant on the LAS site in the nearly 40-minute July presentation or in the documentation they provided.

The existing sewage plant on Calls Creek in Watkinsville is to be expanded in the short term but ultimately it, too, will be phased out.

To replace the Calls Creek plant and the proposed Rocky Branch plant, Thomas and Parker recommended that the county build a sewage treatment plant somewhere on the Middle Oconee River, possibly in collaboration with Athens-Clarke County.

They also recommended that the county modify many of its existing sewage lines, which rely on pump stations to move effluent to either the Land Application Site or the Calls Creek plant, and rely instead on gravity flow through lines following the natural contours of the county.

Rather than provide sewer services to residential customers in the area between Mars Hill Road and Hog Mountain Road, the pair recommended that the county concentrate on providing services to commercial and industrial customers in the area north of SR 316, including Bogart.

“This is the key economic development area for the county,” Parker said at the July 26 meeting. “We feel that both strategically from an economic development standpoint and from an operations (standpoint) that both these projects are high priorities.”

While the Board did not take any official action after the presentations in March 1 and July 26, Thomas and Parker gave their recommendations at the request of the Board as a way of planning for future sewer needs. The March 1 presentation was a preliminary version of the one in July.

The WASI Plan will provide a chance for the Board to take formal action on the priority list.

No member of the Board objected to the proposals in March and July, which are consistent with Board policy regarding future sewage capacity approved formally in December of 2008.

And the presentations were consistent with the Final Report of the Utility Department Long Range Wastewater Strategies prepared for the BOC in February of 2005 but never formally adopted as policy.

The plans presented by Thomas and Parker represent, however, a radical departure from the sewage plans in place during the boom in residential growth in the county during the middle of the last decade.

That boom was made possible by a decision of the BOC back in 2003 to begin providing sewage services to residential customers.

In the July 26 presentation, Thomas and Parker said their goal was to “identify future water and wastewater system improvements required to accommodate current and projected system demands.”

Thomas started the presentation by saying the presentation was based on four goals, quality, service, capacity and cost.

The pair said the county should improve connectivity of the existing county water lines to improve water quality, operational efficiency and fire protection.

Service area expansion should be limited to areas north of High Shoals Road, the city of Bishop, and Barnett Shoals Road.

They also proposed the expansion of the capacity of the Bear Creek Water Treatment Plant in Jackson County, the primary source of the county’s water, construction of the Hard Labor Creek reservoir in Walton County, and the addition of a 1-million-gallon-capacity water tower on New High Shoals Road.

Thomas and Parker said the county should expand the now limited gravity sewer “backbone” in the McNutt Creek and Barber Creek basins, expand the Calls Creek plant, and build a new plant somewhere on the Middle Oconee River.

They recommended the county purchase between 35 and 40 acres for the Middle Oconee River facility.

The county also should move toward elimination of existing septic systems, they said.

The two presentations were made to the Board as it debated construction of a part of the gravity sewer line system, ostensibly to provide sewage service to two county businesses, Zoom Bait and the St. Mary’s Health Care facility, both on Jennings Mill Road.

The project also would have benefitted any future developer of the land behind Lowe’s and Wal-Mart, referred to as the Gordy tract.

The BOC decided not to go forward with the project at that time.

At the Aug. 2 meeting where the Board voted to not build the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s line, members expressed support for the broader proposal that had been outlined by Thomas and Parker the week before.

Media coverage at that time focused on the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s line decision, not the changes in water and sewer policy proposed by Thomas and Parker.

The history of the scuttled Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant is complex.

Possible construction of a new sewage treatment plant at the Rocky Branch LAS site was first discussed at an open BOC meeting on March 25, 2003.

At that time, the Board was told that the Utility Department was considering construction of a treatment plant on the 250-acre site adjacent to North Oconee High School that would treat one million gallons per day of sewage.

The county ultimately sought and received permission to discharge the treated water from that plant into Barber Creek, which flows through many subdivisions, and my back yard, before joining McNutt Creek near the Middle Oconee River.

I created a group called Friends of Barber creek in early 2006 to represent the interests of the creek and those who lived along it downstream from the proposed sewage treatment plant. The organization is still registered with the state.

The county awarded design contracts for the plant, but on Dec. 2, 2008, the BOC voted to “place the project on hold” because of the downturn in the economy and decreased Utility Department revenue brought about by the extended drought.

The BOC also voted at that time to allocate future sewage capacity to commercial use.

When the BOC actually started allocating sewage capacity to residential users is not clear from the official minutes of BOC meetings, but the decision seems to have been made in late 2002 and early 2003.

The Rocky Branch Land Application system began operation in August of 2002 and was permitted at 0.4 million gallons per day of capacity.

On Sept. 24, 2002, the BOC approved a temporary moratorium on multi-family rezones until it had decided how to “address public sewer availability.”

And on June 24, 2003, the Board passed an ordinance to “clarify the allocation of sewer capacity.”

That ordinance said sewer capacity can be held for three years if the capacity fee were paid in the first year of application. After three years, the county can refund the fees and reclaim the capacity.

By late 2003, the Board aggressively was allocating that sewage capacity to residential applicants.

On Oct. 7, 2003, the BOC approved, among other rezones, one for 443 acres on Goat Farm Road and U.S. 78 called Westland.

The proposal was for 430 housing units and commercial development in a master planned development with shared green space. The project could only be approved because the county allocated sewer treatment capacity to the project.

The sewage was to be pumped to the Rocky Branch Road LAS site for treatment.

Westland was the largest residential development in the county to that point, but it was followed in 2004 by the 500-acre Parkside project between Hog Mountain Road and Mars Hill Road.

That project included 810 single-family homes and commercial space in a master plan development. Again, the county allocated sewage treatment capacity.

The project was approved on Dec. 7, 2004.

The county said at the time of the approval that it had capacity to treat the Parkside sewage at the Calls Creek plant. That plant had been built in 1985 to provide sewage treatment for Watkinsville but was extensively modified in 1995.

Despite the promise in the rezone for Parkside that the sewage capacity would come from the Calls Creek plant, county officials frequently touted Parkside as a potential user of effluent from the proposed Rocky Branch plant when critics complained that the treated sewage water was a potential threat to Barber Creek.

Neither Westland nor Parkside has been completed, though much of the infrastructure is in place. Both are fenced from the public at present.

Utility Department Director Thomas told me in a telephone conversation on Jan. 12 that Westland paid $535,000 for 45,512 gallons per day of sewage treatment capacity in October of 2004. That represented half of the needed amount for the residential development. The fee was what the county required at the time, he said.

Parkside paid $2,027,500 in December of 2005 for 168,956 gallons per day of sewage treatment capacity, according to Thomas. That was the full amount for the residential development and what was required by the county at that time, he said.

Thomas said the county is holding the funds paid to purchase treatment capacity for these two project and can purchase back the capacity at any time. The developments did not make use of the allocation within the three-years stipulated in the ordinance passed by the county back in 2003.

Thomas said he does not have a full list of sewage capacity allocated by the county but not used but is working to create such a list at the request of the Board of Commissioners.

Back in 2005, when Jordan Jones & Goulding of Athens prepared its report on long range wastewater strategies for the county, it recommended expansion of the Calls Creek sewage plant to 1.0 million gallons per day of capacity.

It projected that this capacity would be exceeded by 2012, and at that time the plant could be decommissioned because a new sewage treatment plant on the Middle Oconee River would have been built.

That plant on an undetermined location on the river would be expanded to 4.5 MGD by 2017, the report said.

The Jordan Jones & Goulding report projected that the Rocky Branch sewage plant would have been built by 2008 and the LAS system would have been eliminated.

The 1 MGD capacity of the Rocky Branch plant would have been exceeded by 2015, the report speculated, and the plant then either could have been decommissioned or maintained as a source of reclaimed water for the surrounding area.

The JJ&G report emphasized the importance of a future Middle Oconee River treatment plant.

Expansion of the Calls Creek plant much beyond 1 MGD would exceed the capacity of Calls Creek to handle the effluent and require a direct pipeline to the Middle Oconee River, the report said.

Expansion of the Rocky Branch plant beyond 1 MGD would exceed the capacity of Barber Creek and require an effluent pipeline to the Apalachee River, it said.

Thomas told the BOC back in July that planning for water and sewer needs of the county “is dynamic” and “may change over time due to service strategies, growth trends, economic development priorities or other factors.”

When developers pay for system improvements to accommodate their projects, this has impact on county planning, he said.

He said at that time that the WASI Plan, which he will be presenting on Tuesday night, will include recommendations on which projects should be undertaken and in what order.

Thomas told me on Friday that county transportation projects also influence water and sewer needs.

For that reason, Thomas said, the county has coordinated planning in these areas.

Emil Beshara, county Public Works director, on Tuesday also is scheduled to present to the BOC what is called the Transportation Improvement and Maintenance (TIM) Plan for 2013 and 2014.


The full video of the July 26 presentation by Thomas and Parker is on the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.

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