Dawson Forest a new player in state water debate

DAWSONVILLE – Gary Pichon paused at the edge of Shoal Creek one morning last week and gazed over the hilly wooded landscape of Dawson Forest. The quiet 10,000-acre tract 50 miles north of downtown Atlanta, owned by the city since the early 1970s, is suddenly a hot property.

Three years ago Atlanta and Mayor Shirley Franklin turned down a $30 million offer to sell the land, which the city bought for $5 million four decades ago with the idea of one day building a second airport here.

But the property has remained in play. While a new airport study is ongoing, the city under Mayor Kasim Reed is now in talks with two groups about holding on to the land and forming a partnership to build a 2,000-acre reservoir and sell water to the rest of the region at a rate of about 100 million gallons a day.

The city would not have to pay into the project, which one potential partner – the Etowah Water and Sewer Authority – estimates would cost about $650 million. Atlanta’s equity stake would be the land, according to David Bennett, senior policy analyst for the city.

Pichon, a 63-year-old Dawson County commissioner, retired businessman, bicyclist and deer hunter, guesses at the likelihood of either of these projects – reservoir or airport – ever getting off the ground.

“I’d say the odds of a reservoir being built are about 60 for, 40 against,” he said. “I really don’t see an airport or airstrip being built up here. It’s not the right place. And with all the noise and pollution, people just wouldn’t stand for it.”

During the Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s, Lockheed Aircraft Corp. used Dawson Forest as a top-secret test site to develop nuclear-powered airplanes.

Now the land, which the Georgia Department of Natural Resources manages and still monitors for radiation levels, is a collision point of key elements that shape the future of metro Atlanta -- air, water and green space.

Airport officials, with a $1 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, said last week they continue their three-year study of air traffic capacity at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport with Dawson Forest as a potential site for an airstrip that would eliminate the need for a sixth runway at Hartsfield.

Opponents are already arrayed against the idea of any development on the land, especially a reservoir, which faces a host of environmental, political, legislative and legal obstacles.

Pierre Howard, the former lieutenant governor and president of the environmental group Georgia Conservancy, said last week he is surprised the city is entertaining the idea of a reservoir because Reed told him otherwise when he was running for office.

“When I talked to the mayor before the election, I understood he was opposed to a reservoir. But I haven’t had a chance to talk to him in several months,” said Howard.

When a reporter asked for a response from Reed, a spokesman said, “It's in the city's best long-term interests to look at every option. There's no reason why we wouldn't."

The point-man for one of the two groups talking to the city is McKenna Long & Aldridge attorney Steve Labovitz, an astute political player and former chief of staff under former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell. Labovitz did not respond to a request for comment but deferred to Jerry Daws, president of Republic Resources, a developer of warehouses and industrial parks and a pivotal figure in the reservoir talks.

A year ago, Daws was working with Etowah Water and Sewer Authority on its proposal to build a reservoir. Now he is on the other side, bidding against Etowah, which has since partnered with American Water Corp., according to Etowah general manager Brooke Anderson.

Daws confirmed he’s working with a new group, but declined to elaborate.

“We are pleased to see that significant attention is being focused on the water resource needs of our city, region and state as we believe that availability of quality water supply is quickly reaching a critical level,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Both groups plan to build the reservoir by damming Shoal Creek. The proposed reservoir will cover roughly three square miles of the 15-square-mile property. The reservoir, which would take about two years to fill, would not immerse or directly draw water from either the Etowah River or Amicalola River, which also flow through the tract.

But the damming of Shoal Creek still presents serious environmental and legal problems that could take years to untangle.

The project would require taking water from one river basin, the Coosa, and transferring it to another, the Chattahoochee. Such an inter-basin transfer is forbidden by Atlanta water district restrictions and opposed by such environment groups as the Coosa River Basin Initiative. It would take action by the Georgia legislature to change those guidelines.

The water from Shoal Creek feeds into the Etowah which feeds into Lake Alatoona, which in turn leads into the Coosa River. The Coosa flows into Alabama and the heart of the water war between Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Todd Stacy, a spokesman for Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, said last week the state still opposes the building of any Georgia reservoir that could impede water flowing into the state.

Georgia is one year into a three-year deadline set by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson to work out a water-sharing agreement with Alabama and Florida, which rely on the downstream flow from Atlanta. Magnuson ruled Atlanta is illegally taping Lake Lanier for drinking water and has threatened cut off access to that source if the states don't strike an accord. Without Lanier, the metro area could lose access to as much as 250 million gallons of water day.

A Dawson Forest reservoir could greatly compensate for that, said Anderson of the Etowah River and Sewer Authority. He has been been pushing to build a reservoir for two and a half years and figures, under the best-case scenario, it would take eight years before the reservoir, water treatment plant and 38-mile pipe line to move the water south are complete.

"There's a lot of complexity in this deal, a lot of complexity," said Anderson. "But I think it would go a long way toward alleviating the pressure on water and certainly buy some time for the future, because we don't know what will become of the tri-state [water war] issue."

Howard of the Georgia Conservancy dismisses the reservoir as "an idea raised by people who just want to make a tremendous amount of money from the property. That's not my vision.  My vision for the property is -- and has been for 20 years -- to preserve Dawson Forest in its natural state."

Howard said building the reservoir would raise any number of environmental issues, including the threat to a few endangered species in Shoal Creek and the possibility that somehow radiation from Lockheed's old nuclear testing site could make its way into the water supply. Remaining buildings from that facility, which are overgrown and surrounded by barbed-wire fences, would not be inundated by the reservoir.

"But the question remains: how much of an area was irradiated by the tests?" said Howard.

Pichon, who calls Dawson Forest the "crown jewel" of outdoor recreation in metro Atlanta, said he's not going to pick sides. Any plan that will preserve the property, that provides money for upkeep the 10,000 acres of hiking and horse trails, that keeps canoeing and fishing streams intact, and that stimulates the economy of Dawson County works for him.

"Since I don't have a big checkbook, I'll have to dance with whoever shows up," he said. "I'm a realist."