South Fulton reservoir: No water yet, just debt

South Fulton leaders have long dreamed of a reservoir of their own, ending their dependency on Atlanta for water and preparing for growth they believe is inevitable.

“He who controls the water controls his destiny. That’s what I believe,” says Palmetto Mayor Clark Boddie.

Palmetto, Fairburn and Union City threw in together in the early 2000s, floating $42 million in bonds so far to develop the Bear Creek Reservoir. For now, all they have to show for it is debt: Water customers in the cities paid $2.2 million last year on the bonds.

Meanwhile Bear Creek, which may have seemed visionary in the boom years before the Great Recession, now faces an expensive, uphill climb and an uncertain future.

Atlanta, concerned about losing its water customers in south Fulton, sued over the plan and earlier this year extracted a deal from the three cities under which it gets to keep all its current customers, whether the $100 million reservoir is built or not.

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Fairburn and Union City currently buy their water from Atlanta and resell it to their residents. Brian Jones, a Union City councilman and chairman of the South Fulton Municipal Regional Water Authority, said the settlement will allow the cities to serve those customers with homegrown water from Bear Creek.

But agreement leaves Bear Creek’s specific service area to be decided another day by all four cities.

Juliet Cohen, a lawyer with the environmental group Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which opposes Bear Creek, said the settlement greatly favors Atlanta in the short term and “seems to punt a lot of the tough issues to a later date.”

“The city of Atlanta seems to continue to maintain its service delivery area even within part of that three-city authority and this agreement is more favorable to the city in retaining that in the long term,” she said. “It begs the question how the (south Fulton cities) will justify the need to serve any customers and the real purpose of Bear Creek Reservoir.”

Gov. Nathan Deal has pledged state money to help jump start regional reservoirs through the Governor’s Water Supply Program, but Bear Creek was skunked this summer on the first round of funding. Program scoring sheets rated the reservoir as the least necessary among four planned regional reservoirs and the project got no money.

South Fulton officials, though surprised by the evaluation, remain upbeat.

“We’re still on course,” Boddie said. “It’s just taken us longer than we thought.”

The question of need could be a problem for the cities in getting federal permits to build the reservoir since the cities must demonstrate they need the water and cannot get it another way.

Environmental activists, who typically oppose such projects as destructive, expensive and unnecessary, take the same view of the need for Bear Creek.

“State officials who rated the Bear Creek reservoir for potential funding concluded that the applicant could not demonstrate need or identify an imminent water supply shortfall for the three small towns in south Fulton County,” said Sally Bethea, co-founder of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “Their evaluation also noted that the area already has access to an alternative water supply from the city of Atlanta.”

Bethea said the only people benefiting from the project are “politically connected consultants and developers.”

“Local taxpayers should be outraged and refuse to continue to throw good money after bad,” she said.

April Ingle, executive director of the environmental group Georgia River Network, said Bear Creek is an example of the perils of building municipal reservoirs.

“These local governments say they just want to move forward and get their permits,” she said. “Everyone needs to understand that is expensive.”

Ingle said Hickory Log Creek Reservoir in Canton is a painful example. That project – a partnership between Canton and the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority – ballooned from $20 million to $100 million and has been fraught with delays. Canton, in particular, has been hard hit by the rising costs of the project is paying about $1.7 million a year in operating and financing costs and has tried to sell its share of the project to Cobb County.

Boddie is more upbeat in his assessment. Palmetto is the one city of the three that provides its own water already. But that system is old and small and Boddie said it will have to be replaced eventually.

Boddie also believes the growth the three cities saw a decade ago will return as the recession ends. If anything, the economic downturn just gave Palmetto and its sister cities a little more time to get ready, he said.

“Eventually the banks are going to turn loose of some of their money and when they do we have to be ready,” he said.

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