Report: Private sewer plant costly, not needed

In February, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation detailed the behind-the-scenes political battle to save the privately owned Cauley Creek sewer treatment plant in Johns Creek. Fulton County officials terminated their contract with the plant in 2012, saying they didn't need it. The AJC's investigation showed the owner and his allies lobbied the governor's office, a regional water board and the state Environmental Protection Division to try to convince Fulton County officials to keep the plant open. After initially signaling the county didn't need permission to close the plant, EPD later objected and launched an audit of Fulton County that Cauley Creek's owner has used as leverage to convince county officials to reopen the plant. Today, the AJC reports on an independent consultant's study. You can read the full report at

For years, the owner of a private sewer treatment plant in Johns Creek has argued that Fulton County needs his plant in order to keep up with a booming population and meet state conservation goals.

Some north Fulton politicians agree and are pressing the county to buy the Cauley Creek treatment plant. But an independent consultant recently confirmed what most county officials have said all along: The Cauley Creek plant, which closed in 2012, isn't needed, and reopening it would cost water customers tens of millions of dollars.

In a July 27 draft report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, consultant Burns & McDonnell Engineering of Alpharetta found the county has more than enough sewer capacity to accommodate growth in the Johns Creek area through 2035. When it needs more capacity, by far the most cost-effective way to get it would be to expand the county’s own Johns Creek Environmental Campus, the consultant found.

“The cardinal sin in business is leaving stranded capacity, putting money into something that you don’t use,” County manager Dick Anderson said. “I’m very hesitant to acquire new capacity (at Cauley Creek).”

But some north Fulton politicians don’t trust Fulton to accurately predict the need for sewer capacity. They think the county should reopen Cauley Creek.

“You don’t buy insurance because it makes economic sense the day you buy it,” said Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker. “Cauley Creek is an insurance policy.”

Cauley Creek might not even exist if Fulton County had kept up with growth in booming Johns Creek in the past. In 2000, with some sewer plants maxed out, state regulators imposed a moratorium on new sewer permits until Fulton built more treatment capacity.

In the wake of that moratorium, the county spent $137 million to build the Johns Creek Environmental Campus, which opened in 2010. In the meantime, it helped finance the privately owned Cauley Creek plant, which opened in 2002.

Cauley Creek produced non-drinkable “reuse” water for irrigation, serving about two dozen customers, including several golf courses and churches. In addition to providing needed wastewater capacity, it helped the state meet conservation goals for reusing water.

But by 2012, Fulton administrators said the county no longer needed Cauley Creek. They were paying the owners more than $7 million a year to treat water while most of the capacity at the new Johns Creek plant went unused. At the staff's recommendation, county commissioners voted 5-2 to terminate the Cauley Creek contract, and the plant closed at the end of that year.

Earlier this year, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found Cauley Creek owner Ron Green and his allies waged a behind-the-scenes political battle to save the plant. That campaign involved lobbying the governor's office, a regional water district and the state Environmental Protection Division.

Though state regulators initially concluded the county didn’t need permission to close Cauley Creek, the EPD later objected and launched an audit of Fulton County. The audit found Fulton did not comply with state water conservation goals because it charged Cauley Creek’s former customers a discounted rate for drinkable water they used for irrigation, discouraging conservation.

Citing that finding, EPD rejected the county’s request to expand two other north Fulton sewer plants. One of those plants – the Little River plant, serving northwest Fulton – is already at capacity, and EPD has imposed another moratorium on new sewer permits in that area, a move that could hinder development.

Green has used the EPD audit as leverage. He's offered to sell the plant to the county for $15 million or reopen it himself and contract with the county to treat wastewater.

The consultant’s report found the county can meet its sewer treatment needs and address the EPD’s concerns without reopening Cauley Creek.

Using population projections obtained from local cities and other sources, Burns & McDonnell found that, for the next 20 years, Fulton has more than enough capacity.

Population in the Johns Creek area is projected to rise about 17 percent in the next two decades. It would have to increase 75 percent – with a population density comparable to Buckhead – for the county to need more capacity than it already has, the report found.

If additional capacity is needed in the future, the cheapest way to get it would be to expand Fulton’s Johns Creek Environmental Campus, according to the consultant. Expanding and operating the plant would cost about $6.5 million over 20 years.

Buying and operating Cauley Creek would cost about $28 million over 20 years, the consultant found. Paying Green to reopen the plant and treat the county’s wastewater would cost $100 million.

To address state water conservation goals, the county plans to renegotiate its contracts with Cauley Creek’s former customers. Fulton would charge them the full rate for drinkable water, but give them a credit that would effectively lower their payments through the life of the original contracts.

The EPD has tentatively agreed to that approach – a move that could clear the way for the county to expand its other north Fulton sewer plants.

Anderson said the consultant is also studying whether it makes sense to pipe sewage from other parts of the county to the Johns Creek area and reopen the Cauley Creek plant to help treat it. A preliminary assessment by the consultant found that plan “may well be practically impossible” because of cost and other concerns.

Green disputes the consultant’s findings. He says Cauley Creek is the least risky option for expanding sewer capacity in north Fulton.

Some elected officials say county forecasts for needed sewage capacity have been wrong in the past, and they want to avoid another moratorium that could impede growth.

“I’m really concerned that we’re being short-sighted,” said County Commissioner Liz Hausmann. “I just know no one predicted the (past) growth out here and we ended up in a bad spot.”