The Oconee County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously last night to approve loan documents from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) that add $5.8 million in new county debt for construction of the Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir in Walton County.
The BOC took the action following a financial analysis by County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko showing that the county can handle this and all future debt for the reservoir and other projects without a water rate increase, though he did not guarantee that a rate increase would not be necessary in the future.
Benko said that the Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir Management Board has shelved plans in the short term for construction of a water treatment plant to process water from the reservoir as a cost-saving measure.
Benko said the focus of the project at present is on providing “raw water” that can be treated at other plants already in existence in Walton County.
Project Manager Jimmy Parker told me after the meeting he is in negotiations with municipalities in Walton County that would take advantage of unused capacity in their plants, though he would not name those cities.
Water, once treated, would be distributed through the existing water lines of Walton County and then cross the border into Oconee County on existing interconnects between the two systems, Parker said, also holding down costs in the short term.
Building Dam Is Priority
The $5.8 million in money authorized by the BOC last night, in combination with Walton County’s $14.2 million of the loan approved by the state in August, will be used to begin construction of the dam and intake structure.
GEFA has approved an additional $12 million in loan money, but the Management Board has postponed acceptance until it needs the money, probably in a year. Oconee County’s share of that debt will be $3.5 million.
By postponing construction of the treatment plant and distribution system, the Management Board is delaying spending the $73 million that was estimated to be needed for the plant and related transmission facilities.
BOC Chairman Melvin Davis announced after the vote last night that the Walton County Board of Commissioners also has approved the loan documents.
County Projected To Need Water In 6-8 Years
Benko and Parker told the commissioners and the general public last night that while population growth and water demand have been less than was projected when the BOC approved the project in 2007, the county will need water from the reservoir somewhere between 2018 and 2020.
The HLC reservoir will be built and filled by 2018, they said.
In 2004, the county’s water need was projected to grow to more than 15 million gallons per day by 2050. Under that projection, the county would have needed the HLC water next year. The projection Parker used last night is that the county will need 10 million gallons per day in 2050.
Parker said he was factoring in the expected commercial demand from projects along the Oconee Connector Extension near Epps Bridge Parkway, the demand of Caterpillar for its plant near Bogart and the expected related developments associated with Caterpillar.
Parker said in projecting costs to and debt load on the county he and Benko were including all costs of the treatment plant and transmission system for the HLC reservoir, expansion of the Calls Creek sewage treatment plant outside Watkinsville and a new sewage treatment plant on the Middle Oconee River.
Not Building Dam Considered
Benko told the commissioners that the Management Board had considered whether it was advisable to “sit on” the land already acquired for the reservoir but not build the dam but had rejected that option after analyzing the county’s ability to handle the debt.
In making the case for the loan, Benko said water in Oconee County at present is relatively inexpensive, even with recent rate increases.
The average Oconee County water bill is $37.44 per month, Benko said, compared with the average local cable television bill of $49.90 per month. He also said that the average monthly water bill in Oconee County is lower than in Barrow, Walton, Jackson and Green counties. It is considerably higher than the average water bills in Athens-Clarke County, he noted.
Benko uploaded the slide show he and Parker used last night to the county web site today.
I had prepared charts prior to last night’s meeting on population growth based on Census Bureau data and on water use, the county’s water customer base and water sales from county documents.
The full video of the section of last night’s meeting dealing with Hard Labor Creek is below: