Water officials in Northwest Georgia’s Coosawattee River basin had considered building a reservoir long before historic drought gripped the area, and way before legislation passed to help with costs and permitting.
But the drought and new law don’t hurt their plans.
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The formation of the Coosawattee Regional Water and Sewer Authority was signed into law this month by Gov. Sonny Perdue, binding together Murray, Gordon, Pickens and Gilmer counties.
However, the idea of the four counties joining to build a reservoir and manage water needs surfaced at least four years ago, said Kelly Cornwell, director of utilities for Calhoun, in Gordon County.
“We were talking long before the drought was a major issue,” he said. “But it pointed out the need. It reinforced our efforts.”
Water officials from Calhoun, Chatsworth, Pickens County and the Ellijay-Gilmer County Water and Sewerage Authority are to meet next week to takes steps to assemble a nine-member regional board.
The authority board will have the power to issue bonds and to condemn property in areas that have agreed to take part in water management projects.
How residents in the basin receive water shouldn’t change too much — yet, said Tom Martin, general manager of the Chatsworth Water Works Commission, in Murray County.
While a reservoir might be one project to consider, the purpose of the authority is regional planning. “One of the things the state wants to see is planning on a regional level,” said Mr. Martin.
He doesn’t think regional water councils mandated by a statewide water management plan, also passed this legislative session, will drastically affect the new authority’s objectives. “(The water supply) is shared regardless if we form a joint thing or not,” he said. “Instead of doing it individually, we’ll do it as a group.”
Cooperative planning among all jurisdictions in a natural river basin might help any projects gain state or federal approval, said Emory DeBord, director of Ellijay-Gilmer County Water and Sewer Authority.
“With the permitting processes we would have to go through ... it would be looked on more favorably if we are looking at it on a regional basis,” he said.
Legislators tried to cement the regional water authority concept into law last year, but it didn’t get all the way through until now, said Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun.
“It’s a wonderful deal, and it comes about at the correct time — we just passed the water plan,” he said. “We might not need (additional water supplies) in Gordon County right now, but there will be needs in the future simply because of growth.”
Pickens County already buys water from Calhoun, which doesn’t strain the city’s water supply at the moment, Mr. Cornwell said.
But demand in the river basin is projected to increase by almost 600 percent in the next 50 years, from 14 million gallons a day in 2010 to 97 million gallons a day in 2060, according to a preliminary water supply study commissioned by the Northwest Georgia Regional Water Resource Partnership and released in January.
“We’ve got to get started early,” Mr. Cornwell said. “We’re just trying to be proactive and ahead.”
The study identified at least four sites in the Coosawattee River basin with favorable cost and environmental factors to build a water supply reservoir.
Mr. Cornwell said any sites would need much more exhaustive examination before the planning and permitting process could begin because the preliminary study didn’t involve on-location visits.
The water officials said legislation passed this session to streamline the state permitting process for reservoirs and providing a $70 million fund for water supply projects is encouraging.
“We were pleased to see it pass,” Mr. Cornwell said. “It validated what we’re trying to do. ... It’s better with a little money and help.”
The Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority is setting guidelines for applying for the state money and plans announce the first recipients of the grants and low-interest loans this fall. Rep. Meadows said he believes the Legislature will continue to put money in the fund for years to come, which could possibly benefit a project of the new water authority.
April Ingle, executive director of the Georgia River Network, said careful consideration is needed before local governments undertake reservoir projects.
“Reservoirs have the detriment of being environmentally damaging and can lead to violations of people’s property rights,” she said. “We would hope local governments would reduce the demand of water.”
She said Georgians consume per capita consume 10 percent more water than the national average.