Newton County halt to reservoir has implications across Georgia

Officials in Newton County voted this week to stop work on a planned reservoir after spending 15 years and at least $20 million in taxpayer money when they realized they could not convince federal regulators they needed it.

While it is a local government decision, the shelving of the Bear Creek Reservoir by the county’s Board of Commissioners has repercussions for water policy across the northern half of the state, where similarly situated reservoir projects await their fate.

“It is a big deal. It’s almost shocking,” said Chris Manganiello, the policy director for the Georgia Rivers Network, an environmental group opposed to the reservoir. “I think the people of Newton County spoke out and the county listened.”

Manganiello said the board’s decision “casts a doubt on the justification for (proposed) reservoirs all over Georgia.”

The board voted 4-0 in a meeting Tuesday to stop any further work on the proposed drinking water reservoir just southeast of Covington. The move comes after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this summer pulled the county’s application for a dam permit — known as a 404 permit — after repeatedly questioning the county’s consultant over whether the project was needed.

“The Corps of Engineers are calling the shots,” Commissioner John Douglas said. “They have put our 404 permit on hold. We can’t go any further without it.”

But Douglas said it was not just the federal government’s position on the project that caused the commissioners to change course.

“A lot of the citizens of the county have let us know that they want us to slow down,” he said.

Bear Creek, originally proposed in 2000, was pitched with the idea that Newton County was on the verge of explosive residential growth. State projections showed the county, with a current population of about 102,000, was expected to grow to more than 400,000 by 2050.

Douglas said those earlier projections were “unrealistic.”

“Now the latest projections are less than 200,000,” he said.

The project was originally estimated at $62 million, but that figure doubled over time, ballooning to $125 million. Commissioner Nancy Schulz, who referred to Bear Creek as a “rabbit hole,” said the decision to move away from the troubled project will allow the county “to shift our focus to maximizing our current water resources.”

“We spent a lot of money, clearly, on Bear Creek over the years,” she said. “Right now, money is a precious resource, too. You can’t just keep spending money — for lack of a better word — like water.”

Commissioner Levie Maddox said the decision does not kill the reservoir.

“I would phrase it as it’s on pause for a thorough review, locally,” he said. When asked whether he believed the project would eventually be built, Maddox hedged.

“I don’t think anything will happen until we get a new county manager and he has his staff shaped up,” Maddox said. The county currently is without a permanent manager.

Regardless, the decision is a stunning reversal for a project that seemed a sure thing just a few years ago when it qualified for $21 million in low-interest loans as part of Gov. Nathan Deal’s program to kick-start reservoir development across the state.

“The state will not offer you a loan unless they have assurances that you are going to cross the finish line,” Newton County Attorney Tommy Craig told The Covington News in August 2012.

Craig, who serves as the county’s paid consultant on the project and is a consultant for other reservoir projects across the state, proclaimed Bear Creek was “on the final leg of the journey” and predicted the project would get the needed federal permit in just a few months. That didn’t happen, and the county never received the loans.

But Schulz said the legal bills kept coming.

“I scrutinize the county attorney invoices every month,” she said. “Just in September we spent $17,000 in legal fees just going back and forth to the corps trying to justify (the project).”

Juliette Cohen, the executive director of the environmental watchdog group Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said the Newton County decision is a precedent she hopes other local governments will follow when it comes to their own long-delayed reservoirs.

“It seems like sanity prevailed,” she said. “It seems they realized they were spending good money after bad.”

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