CANTON, Ga. - The towering concrete slabs of the new Hickory Log Creek Reservoir look like steps leading to a Mayan temple, somehow transported to suburban North Georgia.
That mass of concrete holds back a slow-growing reservoir that Canton and the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority view as their backup supply in case the Etowah River and Lake Allatoona, the water sources for this fast-growing stretch of Georgia, run low.
"The concept of our project is kind of like a savings account," said Glenn Page, general manager of the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority. "You put the money in a savings account for when you need it."
Hickory Log Creek, one of the state's newest reservoirs, shows the benefits and the problems of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal's promise to spend $300 million over fours years to support reservoir development and other storage options.
The project took years to finish and was expensive, running $75 million over original budget estimates.
The governor is counting on those reservoirs to help end a long-running water dispute with neighboring Alabama and Florida. Unless Georgia strikes a deal to end the lawsuits by 2012, a federal judge will severely restrict metropolitan Atlanta's withdrawals from Lake Lanier, the main water supply for more than 3 million of the city's residents. The water from Lake Lanier flows along Alabama and into Florida, and those states have argued Georgia is using too much of it.
Deal said Georgia needs to show good faith by doing what it can to expand and save its water supply.
"It includes fixing water pipes, it includes being conscious of our water usage," Deal said, "but it also includes having the capacity to store water that falls on our soil and to have it available in times of drought and other times of great demand."
The reservoir at Hickory Log Creek was built for that purpose, although it predates Deal's administration.
When rainfall and runoff finally fill the reservoir - perhaps in as little as six months - it will hold nearly six billion gallons of backup water. The project started in the late 1990s, although Page said its value seemed apparent when a 2007 drought reduced the Etowah River to its lowest level ever recorded.
"You can't conserve your way out of a drought," he said. "You have to be able to look at future supplies."
So far, Deal has left the details of his water project to a task force that is expected to begin meeting in March. Besides reservoirs, it will also consider other water storage options, such as sending treated water into underground rock formations.
Georgia already has about 90 reservoirs used for drinking water, according to the state Environmental Protection Division. Three reservoirs are being built or - like Hickory Log Creek - have not yet been used. Nine more projects are under review. Permits are needed from both the state government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and it's unclear when they would be approved.
A new building spree would face several uncertainties.
The first is money. Deal's budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 would provide $46 million for reservoirs, the first installment in his four-year, $300 million plan. The Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority is overseeing much of that money, which would be raised by selling bonds.
That money won't cover much considering Hickory Log Creek cost roughly $100 million. Original estimates had the reservoir at $25 million. Local officials said earlier plans called for using a smaller dam and assumed there would be fewer land purchases needed. Material and labor costs also skyrocketed during construction.
"These things are very, very expensive, beginning to end," said Allen Barnes, director of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division, who supports Deal's plan.
Skeptics are concerned that reservoirs cost millions of dollars in planning and consulting fees - and that's before any groundbreaking.
"The cynic in me says these reservoir projects and the push to build reservoirs is really about consultants and engineers making a lot of money," said Joe Cook, executive director and riverkeeper at the Coosa River Basin Initiative.
Cook said money would be better spent fixing leaking pipes and infrastructure that waste the state's existing water supplies.
"Before we go investing hundreds of million of dollars, even billions of dollars, we need to secure that cheap water," Cook said. "And the cheap water is the water we can get through water conservation and efficiency."
Legal challenges also could hamper reservoir projects. In 2007, Alabama filed a fresh legal complaint asking a federal judge to reopen the permits for the Hickory Log Creek Reservoir, arguing it would hurt that state's access to water. U.S. District Court Judge Karon Bowdre has delayed proceedings in that lawsuit while Deal and other governors negotiate.
And reservoirs are not a quick fix. Experts say the projects can take anywhere from eight to 15 years to finish. By that standard, Hickory Log Creek was fast, taking five years for permitting and roughly two years for construction.
The speed was made possible by its location. Developers selected the site because the creek was already hindered by an existing dam, meaning building a reservoir was unlikely to significantly worsen damage downstream.
But in return for submerging land behind the dam, Canton and the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority had to spend millions for land elsewhere that will be repaired and preserved to compensate for the losses caused by the reservoir.