In this drought, there’s no rush to build Georgia reservoirs

With Georgia in the middle of a searing drought, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and legislative leaders stood before reporters nearly a decade ago to pledge tens of millions of dollars to build reservoirs to make sure the state had enough water in the future.

“We are going to put the full energy of the state behind it,” then-House Speaker Glenn Richardson promised in late 2007, and the General Assembly approved spending $70 million on projects to enhance the state’s water supply.

But it eventually started to rain. And more importantly, the Great Recession hit. And the state decided it couldn’t afford many of the projects.

The scene was a familiar one in Georgia, with lawmakers reacting to drought by promising to prepare for the next one with more reservoirs

“The perception is the easiest way to generate more capacity is to build another hole in the ground,” said Chris Manganiello, the water policy director for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “Talking about reservoirs is a safe thing to do, it is easy to show you’ve completed something. It’s like a lot of infrastructure programs you can put a name on.

“But reservoirs only work if you have some supply of water, if your rivers are running.”

‘In a lot better position’

Today the state yet again is stuck in a severe drought. This time, however, reactions are a little different.

Reservoirs, as state and local planners figured out, are extremely costly propositions. They often take a decade or more to plan and get permitted, and after millions of dollars are spent, local governments often find out they really don’t need them. In some cases, they wind up thinking they’ve wasted taxpayer money and the only people who benefited are the consultants who sold them on a reservoir in the first place.

That’s essentially what officials fear may have happened in Newton County, where the County Commission last fall voted to stop work on a planned reservoir after spending 15 years and at least $25 million.

While a few reservoirs have been built in recent years, some state leaders have come to think the state’s response to the cycles of plentiful rain and parched, fire-prone earth has to be more than digging a giant hole and filling it up.

Georgia House Natural Resources Chairwoman Lynn Smith, R-Newnan, said the water management plan the state adopted in times of drought stressed conservation practices that in many ways have better served Georgians in the short term over the past decade.

“The crisis we had in the first decade of this century prepared us, and we’re in a lot better position now than we ever were,” Smith said.

While the few inches of rain this week ended a record 43-day dry streak, 52 Georgia counties remain under “Level 2” drought restrictions. In metro Atlanta and elsewhere, that includes twice-a-week outdoor watering limits that first took effect Nov. 17.

It will take more rain to bring relief, an experience many in Georgia remember from just a few years ago.

During the devastating drought of 2007-09, when Lake Lanier resembled a ringed and muddy bathtub, Gov. Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency for the northern one-third of the state. Virtually all outdoor watering was banned. Restaurants only served water at a customer’s request. Shorter showers were encouraged. At one point, metro Atlanta had less than 90 days of water supply left.

Perdue held a vigil at the Capitol to pray for rain.

A few months later, Perdue stood on the banks of the pathetically depleted Lake Lanier and signed the Water Conservation and Drought Relief Act of 2008, legislation aimed at expediting the construction of reservoirs throughout the state.

“After facing one of the worst droughts in our state’s history, we are taking the necessary steps to ensure an adequate water supply that meets future needs,” Perdue said at the time of an idea backed by legislative leaders and Cagle.

In a recent interview, Cagle said the idea was pretty simple.

“On average, we get about 50 inches of rainfall, or about 50 trillion gallons, each year,” he said. “Of that 50 trillion, we probably use 1.3 trillion. If we build more reservoirs, if you can capture more of that rain in some way and use it more responsibly, then you can take care of your needs well into the future.

“That’s the premise.”

Opponents of the state’s grand building scheme, however, have long viewed reservoirs as environmentally and financially wasteful. Local officials often base their need for one on the premise of a growing community. But population projections have inherent limitations and can be volatile — shifting up or down — due to changing conditions such as with the economy. And reservoirs themselves are also subject to natural conditions that can limit their effectiveness, such as evaporation from open reservoirs that can deplete water levels.

Once the Great Recession hit, the state decided it couldn’t afford to spend the $40 million it promised local governments to increase water supplies.

Many different players

Georgia’s overall statewide “water management plan” adopted by the General Assembly in 2008 aimed to help the state understand the resources it had to plan for future needs. It included the creation of 11 regions across the state — each overseen by local officials who collectively help articulate how best the state can meet water needs through 2050.

Finding ways to store additional surface water to back up existing supplies is a critical piece to the state’s needs, according to the plan. It also makes clear they are not a quick fix.

“There are many different offices and people involved in the whole process of getting a reservoir built,” said Kevin Chambers, a spokesman for the state’s Environmental Protection Division. The state agency’s role is regulatory, overseeing water permits and evaluating any plans to build or keep up reservoirs.

Among requirements, a new reservoir must show that it will meet projected needs and can be built and maintained while minimizing its impact on the environment. Applications to build a new reservoir, Chambers said, start with local water authorities and governments.

And while the EPD issues the permits, nothing can happen or be built without sign-off from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, since the projects need a federal permit for construction involving the discharge of dredged or “fill” material into waterways, including wetlands.

Then there’s the question of how to pay for them. To qualify for funding through state bonds or loans from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, or GEFA, reservoir projects must also meet specific criteria. The top priority, according to the plan? Projects that enhance existing storage structures to meet water supply needs.

Planning, planning, planning

GEFA reported in late September that it had approved 17 low-interest loans to 11 borrowers — worth $177 million — since 2012 for water supply planning, reservoirs and groundwater wells. An additional $26 million in direct state investment has gone to several other projects, including a Paulding County reservoir currently under construction.

Shane Hix of GEFA said that in the past decade or so, a few reservoirs have been built or are still being built, including one in Walton County that is filling with water.

Gov. Nathan Deal has been a big advocate of the projects, saying the state can’t achieve economic growth without having enough water.

Reservoir construction, in fact, was an early hallmark of Deal’s water policy. After taking office in 2011, Deal pledged $300 million over four years for water supply projects, a fact that irked officials in Alabama and Florida who have spent the past few decades feuding with Georgia over water rights.

Georgia and Florida this week are battling in a Maine courtroom over how to share water from the Chattahoochee River — metro Atlanta’s municipal and economic lifeblood.

Senate Natural Resources and the Environment Chairman Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, said reservoirs remain an “integral part” of any plan in Georgia to meet future water demands. But, Ginn said, that did not lessen the need for other water conservation measures.

According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, per-capita water consumption in the 15-county metro area dropped about 20 percent between 2000 and 2010 due to such measures, which include programs that provide water audits and give rebates to residents replacing old, inefficient plumbing fixtures with low-flow ones.

Additionally, in 2010, the Georgia Legislature passed the Water Stewardship Act to require such measures be adopted by local governments.

Ginn called water conservation “a big savings for the public.” And he was mindful that building reservoirs is expensive and is subject to federal regulations that take time to clear. State legislation for a reservoir in Jackson County, which Ginn represents, was first passed in 1994, although the project wasn’t completed until 2002.

“It was touted as ‘Oh, we’re covered for 50 years of water supply,’ ” Ginn said. “The surprise? It wasn’t even a half-dozen years later we had a drought and that reservoir wasn’t big enough.”

‘Nothing but the excuse’

In recent years, reservoir failures and money made by reservoir consultants have made more news than reservoir completions.

In Newton County, a reservoir project, originally proposed in 2000, was estimated to cost $62 million, but that figure doubled over time and one local commissioner called it a “rabbit hole.” Another commissioner said population estimates used to sell the project were unrealistic.

The project was overseen by former County Attorney Tommy Craig, who also acted as a water consultant on the project. He was fired in November 2015 amid concerns over his billing, transparency and management of the reservoir project.

A forensic audit, carried out by David Sawyer of Frazier & Deeter in Alpharetta, concluded Craig “recklessly wasted” public money. Attempts to contact Craig after the audit was released were unsuccessful.

Craig has worked on numerous similar projects across the state, often as part of a package with Joe Tanner & Associates, a firm that brings political heft and an insider’s knowledge of the regulatory system to projects. Tanner is a former commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Tanner and his firm have long been major campaign donors to the state’s powerful political class, giving more than $500,000 to candidates in the past decade, including about $25,000 to Deal’s campaigns, $27,000 to Cagles’s, and almost $50,000 to Republican Party political action committees, according to a review of records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Earlier this year, state officials said slower-than-projected population growth and metro area water conservation efforts meant that another much talked about project, the Glades Reservoir in Deal’s home county of Hall, wasn’t needed as a drinking water reservoir.

Hall County has spent about $16 million over the past decade on the Glades project, and county officials have pushed back against the state’s lowered projections.

State officials said Glades could still be used to boost the flow in the river basin with timed releases of stored water, but nothing is a given.

Environmentalist have also long said that politicians push projects like Glades not necessarily because of the need for water storage. They want reservoirs because of the money to be made by developing lakefront property, something state officials say doesn’t play a role in their decision-making.

“A drought is nothing but the excuse to build them,” said Neill Herring, a longtime environmental lobbyist at the Capitol. “The drought gets people to go along with it. The real estate guys always think they are a good idea.”

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