Sunday, February 05, 2012

Oconee County Commissioners to Revisit Water Contract With Walton County at Tuesday Night Meeting

Wells and Sales at Issue

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners Tuesday night is scheduled to take up again a proposed contact that would allow Walton County to purchase up to a half million gallons per day of water from Oconee County.

The contract was brought to the Board at its Jan. 24 agenda-setting meeting by County Utility Department Director Chris Thomas.

Horton, 1/24/2012

At the request of Commissioner Chuck Horton, it was added to the regular agenda for Tuesday night’s meeting, rather than the consent agenda, so the Board can discuss further the pros and cons of the contract.

Thomas told the Board at its agenda-setting meeting on Jan. 24 that the sale was good for the county because it would generate needed revenue for his department and would allow the county to keep its system of wells in operating order.

Commissioner Chuck Horton countered that the revenue generated by the contract with Walton County was not very large and would not warrant taking water out of county wells that could be used by Oconee County itself in the future.

Horton said he was inclined to vote against the contract, though he was willing to listen to further arguments in its favor. None of the other commissioners indicated how they might vote.

Because the county isn’t allowed to sell water from its primary water source–Bear Creek Reservoir in Jackson County–without permission from Barrow, Jackson and Clarke counties, its partners in the project–the Oconee County Utility Department would have to pump water from a series of wells around the county to meet the terms of the contract.

The water pumped from the wells won’t actually be sequestered and sold to Walton County. The well water, once pumped, is mixed in the system with Bear Creek water.

But the county has to be able to show its Bear Creek partners that it pumps water from its wells equal to or in excess of the amount of water it sells to Walton each month.

The contract, which is an extension of one already in place, calls for pumping a maximum of 500,000 gallons per day.

The average household in Oconee County uses between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons per month in the winter and about 8,000 gallons per month in the summer, Thomas told me in an email message on Wednesday.

At that summer rate, the water that could be sold to Walton County under the contract is what would be needed to serve about 1,900 households in Oconee County, or about a quarter of the residential customers.

Walton County, however, is likely to use considerably less than the maximum allowed in the contract.

In the last 12 months, Thomas told me, Oconee has sold Walton 55,698,000 gallons of water, or an average of 153,000 gallons per day. In a summer month, that average figure would provide the amount of water needed for about 575 households in Oconee County.

Thomas said Walton County paid Oconee County $96,000 last year for the water is purchased., and he told the BOC on Jan. 24 that he expects to make $90,000 from the sale of water to Walton County if the contract is approved.

Horton pointed out that Thomas was using a figure for gross revenue, and that net revenue, after production costs are removed, would be about $59,000.

Thomas agreed with the estimate. He said it costs 64 cents to produce 1,000 gallons of water from the wells, and the county would be selling that water for $1.70 per 1,000 gallons.

Given that ratio, the actual net to the count would be closer to $56,000. But the estimate is rough, because Walton County will pay at a higher rate as it uses more water.

But neither Thomas nor Horton added in an additional cost.

If the county merely wanted to keep the pumps running so they are available in the future, it could pump and distribute the water to Oconee County residents and buy less water from the Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority, which operates the Bear Creek Regional Reservoir and Treatment Plant Facility.

Thomas told me that the county pays between 55 and 65 cents for each 1,000 gallons of water it gets from Bear Creek.

If a cost of 60 cents per 1,000 gallons for the Bear Creek water is added to the cost of the water Oconee County sells to Walton County, the county will gain only about $24,000 from the sale of the water to Walton County next year.

Horton’s second question was whether the county should even be pumping water from the wells.

The county, according to Thomas, has 12 wells, but he said it is using eight or nine at present, with the others, he said, on “what you might call injured reserve.”

Hale, 1/24/2012

A map from 2009 that Thomas gave me last year shows all of the wells the county has listed as available are in or north of Bishop.

The well producing the most amount of water at present is on Hillcrest Drive, just west of Butler’s Crossing.

That well was dug in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Thomas said, and is 580 feet deep. He said the pump is set at 400 feet.

Thomas told me in a telephone conversation Tuesday that the Hillcrest well is graded as able to produce 350 gallons per minute, but he thinks it could produce even more.

The county deactivated the well in 2003, after the Bear Creek Reservoir and water treatment plant came online a year earlier.

But in 2009, the BOC authorized Thomas at its Oct. 6, 2009, meeting to spend $300,000 from Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenues to upgrade the well and agreed to a contract to sell up to 500,000 gallons per day of water to Walton County.

Commissioner Horton was the only commissioner who voted against the action.

Thomas told me in the telephone conversation on Tuesday, that, in August, a peak summer month, Oconee County used 108.915 million gallons of water from the Bear Creek reservoir and 5.23 million from the county’s wells. The largest well, on Hillcrest Road, produced 2.8 million gallons of water.

The county in August sold 4.44 million gallons of water to Walton County.

In February, a typical winter month, Oconee County used 45.9 million gallons from Bear Creek and 5.8 million from wells, including 1.8 million from Hillcrest, according to Thomas.

It sold 3.8 million gallons to Walton.

To help me understand how these wells operate, I talked last week by telephone with Dinku Endale, a hydrologist at the J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center outside Watkinsville, and John Dowd, a hydrologist and geology professor at the University of Georgia.

Dowd, who lives in Oconee County, teaches a class in hydrogeology.

The two told me that beneath the soil here in the Piedmont lies a layer of chemically weathered rock that has broken off from the bedrock, or parent rock. This is called saprolite and could be 30 feet deep or more.

Surface water passes through the soil and then the saprolite before it reaches the bedrock.

The bedrock is not a solid mass. Rather, it has fractures in it that can run in different directions.

Some of the roughly 50 inches of rain that falls in this area can passes through the saprolite and seep into these fractures in the bedrock and be stored in the fractures.

These fractures are the aquifers, or areas in which water is stored, in the Piedmont area. Wells can be drilled into these fractures to pump this water to the surface.

Across time, the aquifers can be replenished by surface water that passes through the soil and the saprolite and then seeps into the fractures.

Dowd said it is unlikely that pumping the water from the bedrock would have much effect on streams in the area. Seepage into the fractures in the bedrock is likely to be rather slow, he said.

Across time, however, the water pumped from the fractures will be replaced by water that has flowed from the surface through the saprolite. That flow can pick up contaminants in the soil and in the saprolite and decrease the quality of the water in the fractures.

Dowd said concern about pumping by the wells should focus on water quality more than on volume.

Pumping the water out "is affecting something," he said, but it is difficult to know what the effect is. "The less you pump," he said, "the less chance you have of pulling in contaminants."

I sent the summary above of the two conversations to Dowd via email for any corrections. He didn't have any, but he added a few things.

“High yield bedrock wells are rare in the Piedmont,” Dowd said in that response. Such wells require larger than normal fractures that are well connected to saprolite that became saturated to a greater than normal depth.

“Because these wells are rare, we rely principally on surface water supplies,” he said.

Most of the precipitation this area gets returns to the atmosphere as “evaportranspiration” or runs off to streams as storm flow, Dowd said. Only “a minor amount travels slowly in the bedrock fractures.”

“If a bedrock well is pumped,” he said, “water is removed from the bedrock fractures, eventually replaced by water in the saprolite. Because we never know precisely where these fractures intersect the saprolite, we cannot tell exactly where the water leaves the saprolite.”

For that reason it isn’t possible to tell exactly what impact pumping will have on other wells in the area or what kinds of contaminants will get into the fractures when they are replenished.

Thomas said the county monitors the production of the wells carefully using ultrasonic readings and files reports to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division regularly.

For the Hillcrest well, he said, the department files a report twice a year giving the reading of the water level before and while pumping.

Thomas said the county also monitors the effects of pumping from its wells on nearby wells. In the past, he said, the Utility Department has provided county water service to homeowners near county wells whose wells have gone dry when the county was pumping from its wells.

In addition to monitoring volume, the county also constantly monitors the quality of the water drawn from the well, Thomas said.

If there were a problem of contaminants seeping into the well, “we would see degradation of water quality,” he told me in our conversation on Tuesday.

“It is almost self-regulating,” he added.

The Hillcrest well has had problems with water quality because of naturally occurring contaminants.

On Sept. 9, 2009, Thomas sent a memo to County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault asking Theriault to put two items on the BOC agenda. The first was the upgrade to the Hillcrest well, and the second was the contract for sale of water to Walton County.

I obtained the memo through an open records request I filed at that time.

Thomas told Theriault that the Hillcrest well had been producing 250 gallons per minute of “average quality water” when it was decommissioned.

“As is common here in the county,” Thomas wrote, “the water had slightly elevated levels of iron and manganese” and “began to produce water with entrained CO2" when it had been called into use in summer months after 2003 when water demand was high.

Thomas said the solution was “an aeration treatment system,” and that was what the BOC approved at its Oct. 6, 2009, meeting.

Thomas also told Theriault that the county was selling Walton County 250,000 gallons per day of water from its wells and 250,000 gallons per day from Bear Creek. The sale of water from Bear Creek had been approved “on a temporary basis,” he said, by the Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority.

This sale was covered by an old contract signed in 2002, he said, and the new contract would replace that. In fact, correspondence I obtained from that records request suggested the 2002 contract had been extended through Dec. 31 of 2011.

The contract the BOC approved in 2009 included a clause saying it supseded any earlier contracts and was to be renewed on Dec. 31, 2010.

That contract was renewed last year, and the BOC on Tuesday is to take up renewal for 2012.

Under the contract, Oconee County delivers the water to Walton County at the Appalachee River where it is crossed by U.S. 78. Thomas told the BOC last month that Walton County has found it easier to service a nearby area with the purchased water from Oconee than with water from its own or other sources.

Thomas told the BOC that Oconee County had a similar agreement for purchase of water from Barrow County.

That took Commissioner Margaret Hale by surprise.

Thomas told me on in a telephone conversation on Friday that Oconee has a 2005 contract with Barrow that would allow Oconee to purchase up to 1.5 million gallons per day of water if needed, he said.

The county uses much less water than allowed by the contract, Thomas said. In December Oconee County purchased 10,000 gallons per day from Barrow County.

The county pays $1.60 per thousand gallons, or just less than what Walton will be paying Oconee County under the contract on the agenda on Tuesday night. Oconee County then sells this water to its customers at a base rate is $16.50 per 1,000 gallons per month, with the rate increasing as use increases.

Barrow County water goes to three areas in the very western part of Oconee County, Thomas said.

The first of these is to Dove Creek subdivision, which Oconee County cannot serve with its own water lines.

The second is Sims Crossing subdivision, which Oconee County can serve. The county finds it easier to use Barrow County water under some circumstances due to pressure changes in the system, Thomas said.

The third is a part of the Georgia Club complex that lies in Oconee County. In this case, the Barrow County water is used as a backup for fire protection in case pressure drops in the Oconee County lines.

The agreement between Barrow and Oconee counties is easy, because both are part of the Bear Creek Reservoir project. Walton is not.

Oconee and Walton are part of the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir project, but that project is on hold due to the lack of demand in either county for water and the consequent lack of funds to build the reservoir, the treatment plant and the distribution system.

The BOC meeting on Tuesday night starts at 7 p.m. at the courthouse in Watkinsville. The water contract is the 10th item on the agenda.

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