Golf clubs see benefit in reopening sewer plant

The debate over whether to reopen a Johns Creek sewer plant may pit the interests of several mostly private golf courses against the pocketbooks of most Fulton County water and sewer customers.

The golf courses say the Cauley Creek wastewater treatment plant would provide a dependable source of irrigation water. Supporters say those courses - including the Atlanta Athletic Club, which has hosted national tournaments that spawn millions in spending - are a boon to the local economy.

“If those golf courses dry up, they’re not allowed to irrigate because of the drought,” said County Commissioner Liz Hausmann. “The courses suffer. Their businesses could suffer.”

Fulton officials closed the plant two years ago, saying they didn’t need it. They expect to save taxpayers $49 million over the next six years as a result - savings some are reluctant to give up.

“If the facts are the same today that they were then, there’s absolutely no basis whatsoever for changing my position,” said Commissioner Emma Darnell, who voted to close the plant.

The debate over the Cauley Creek treatment plant has been revived because CEO Ron Green recently offered to sell it to Fulton County for $15 million. Alternatively, he’s pledged to restart it himself and charge the county to treat wastewater.

The plant opened in 2002, when the county was desperate for sewer capacity to accommodate growth in booming north Fulton. The plant converted sewage into non-drinkable “reused” water for irrigation. Chief among its customers are private clubs: the Atlanta Athletic Club, the Standard Club, Country Club of the South and other Johns Creek golf courses.

Fulton later built its own treatment plant, which county officials say will accommodate growth in the Johns Creek area until at least 2035. In 2012 water and sewer officials said Fulton no longer needed Cauley Creek, and the Board of Commissioners voted to cancel its contract with the plant.

But some of Cauley Creek’s former customers hope the county will reopen the plant.

“If the Cauley Creek plant does reopen, the club would welcome the opportunity to return to the environmentally beneficial use of reclaimed wastewater for irrigation,” said Reggie Kratzer, regional manager for Country Club of the South.

The Atlanta Athletic Club has multiple sources of water for irrigation, including a pond, the Chattahoochee River and rainfall. But rain can be fickle, and the state can impose restrictions on drawing from the river during a drought. Director of Golf Courses and Grounds Ken Mangum called Cauley Creek “an insurance policy.”

Fulton County still provides irrigation water to the Atlanta Athletic Club and other former Cauley Creek customers. But it’s drinkable water, which could be subject to restrictions. Mangum said the reused, non-drinkable water the plant used to provide is not subject to restrictions. And he said reusing sewer water is “environmentally the right thing to do.”

Hausmann thinks reopening Cauley Creek could also be the right thing to do economically.

She cited the benefits to area employers, including golf courses that hire local workers and create jobs at other businesses.

The Atlanta Athletic Club has hosted three PGA championships and a U.S. Open. Last year it hosted the U.S. Amateur championship. One study showed the 2001 PGA Championship at the club had a $50 million economic impact.

But it’s not clear that reopening Cauley Creek makes financial sense for Fulton County and its 111,600 water and sewer customers. The county expects to save $49 million through 2021 because it canceled its contract with Cauley Creek. That allowed Fulton to cut water and sewer rates by 4 percent two years ago.

The average customer is saving about $25 a year, though some commercial customers are saving thousands of dollars.

Two years ago, county finance and water officials were adamant: closing Cauley Creek made financial sense. Some commissioners say they haven’t seen any evidence to the contrary.

“We had a debate,” Darnell said. “I thought it was over.”