Deal backs reservoir plans

By jess

Posted: Sunday, December 26, 2010 .

By Robbie Schwartz

In a year when the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir went from breaking ground to becoming a “shovel ready” project, any glimmer of hope is welcome.

That small glimmer came recently when, in his first major speech to state lawmakers, Gov.-elect Nathan Deal called for legislative action to help build reservoirs in the state when the new session begins Jan. 10.

Despite a potential $2 billion budget shortfall, Deal said he will ask for the budget to include borrowing for new reservoirs and the state should not wait for a water sharing agreement with Florida and Alabama related to the tri-state water wars.

This is good news for the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir, which has acquired more than 50 percent of the land needed for the project, has done most of its engineering studies with dam and water intake facility designs in hand and, more importantly, coveted permitting from the U.S. Corps of Engineers.

“I am excited that Gov.-elect Deal sees the critical need in Georgia for reservoirs,” said Walton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kevin Little. “This should be good for the Hard Labor Creek project because there is no other reservoir as far along with the permitting, land purchases or just all aspects.

“We have not at this time been in contact with Gov.-elect Deal’s office or staff but will be doing so early in 2011.”

But this is a position the reservoir project has been in before. In 2008, the reservoir was touted as a potential solution for water shortages following a federal judge’s ruling restricting Atlanta’s use of Lake Lanier by 2012. Alabama and Florida have been at odds with Georgia over water flow from the Chattahoochee River for almost three decades.

At that time, Gov. Sonny Perdue wanted to set aside millions for water projects. Hard Labor Creek Reservoir officials met with the governor as well as representatives from Gwinnett County about perhaps building the project from the outset to its fullest capacity to meet regional needs. But the economy started its downward trend and state lawmakers have tightened purse strings since.

But state funds could be what the project needs to get started, as officials have adopted a wait-and-see approach, waiting to see a greater need arise for the project.

“If the state was interested in helping make Hard Labor Creek a reality sooner than Walton or Oconee can make that happen, the yes, we would definitely look into pursuing that option,” Little said. “Having water ready and available will be critical in the years to come for Georgia.”

But shortly after Deal made his statement, a team of researchers from colleges in the Southeast said building reservoirs is not the best way to quench north Georgia’s growing thirst for water.

John Kominoski, a researcher at the University of Georgia’s School of Ecology who participated in the study, said because of the topography of the area, reservoirs are too shallow and lose water quickly because of evaporation, reducing water availability downstream. The research team noted supply challenges of the Southeast as well as the extreme drought conditions which have surfaced over the past decade attack the efficiency of reservoirs and that conservation and other steps are more efficient.

Little said there will need to be a balance to meet future needs.

“I think reservoirs do lose water to evaporation, but that is the only way we currently have to maintain the water needs for the people,” he said. “I agree with better water strategies and the state is moving forward with these measures. Educating the people on water conservation and reclamation is going to take years, though.

“Water is the most critical need for survival, and I feel that the county as well as the state will do everything possible to supply this need using every measure of technology available.”

Completely built out, the 12-billion gallon Hard Labor Creek Reservoir will have a capacity of producing 62 million gallons per day of drinking water and will encompass 1,416 acres. The regional water supply is a joint venture of Oconee and Walton counties and has its own management board.

Both counties have bonded out about half of the approved $150 million in first-phase funding, the bulk of which has been spent on land acquisition. Work this year has centered on 47 acres of wetland preservation or enhancements, 28,900 linear feet of stream preservation, 10,000 linear feet of riparian restoration and 22,000 linear feet of channel stabilization being done among all the mitigation sites. With an overall price tag of $2.9 million, all of the sites are expected to be complete by mid-2011.