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Staff file photo / Walker County Commission Chair Shannon Whitfield voted in favor of putting federal COVID stimulus funds toward water improvements.

The Walker County Commission on Thursday night voted to put $5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds toward a $45 million water and sewer improvement plan at the request of the Walker County Water and Sewerage Authority.

Commission Chair Shannon Whitfield and commissioners Robert Blakemore, Mark Askew and Brian Hart voted in favor. Commissioner Robert Stultz was not present.

(READ MORE: Walker County educators, leaders make another plea for stricter safety measures in schools)

Whitfield said the plan will fund the construction of a new water treatment plant, a distribution network to supply water throughout Walker County and a system to redirect sewage from the north end of the county to the sewer treatment plant in Chickamauga, where he said it can be treated more economically than in Chattanooga.

Whitfield said Chattanooga provides treatment for roughly half of Walker County Water and Sewerage Authority's sewage. Because Chattanooga has entered a federal agreement to meet certain treatment standards, Whitfield said the cost of that treatment has risen from about $60,000 per month several years ago to more than $200,000 per month.

Chattanooga entered into the deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Tennessee and the Tennessee Clean Water Network in April 2013. The goal of the agreement is to significantly reduce, and where possible eliminate, sanitary sewer overflows and improve the overall operations of Chattanooga's sewer system.

Whitfield said he believes there has been a 7-10% increase in cost to Walker County every year and that the "redirect project" — which will redirect sewage flowing to Chattanooga back to the treatment plant located off U.S. Highway 27 in Chickamauga — will save ratepayers more money in the long term.

"When the engineer did the assessment, they said we would have about an eight-year return on that $8.7 million investment," Whitfield said at Thursday's meeting.

He said the project would also lay the groundwork for Walker County treating Rossville's sewage in the future. Rossville has completed an engineering feasibility study to connect to Walker County's system.

In addition to redirecting water away from Chattanooga, the improvement plan includes a new 12 million gallon per day water treatment plant replacement on Lee Clarkson Road in Chickamauga.

Whitfield said the new water plant will remedy the problem of running all groundwater sources through multiple treatment locations.

"We have three different locations where we have water, so we asked our engineers to provide us with a study to show how we get to a place where 100% of our water is being filtered. Today, the only water being filtered is the water at the Chickamauga facility, utilizing the temporary filtration," he said Thursday. "That only covers about a third of our daily distribution. That means the other roughly two-thirds of the water going out is not currently being filtered."

(READ MORE: Walker County Schools to start 4-day hybrid instruction on Monday)

Whitfield said the water supply in the county's aquifers has always been able to meet and exceed state requirements for safe drinking water but said it was still vital for the county to be able to filter its entire supply.

"With these projects, we want to get all water filtered. This would help us loop our system so we could filter all the water that needs to go throughout our community out of one facility," he said. "It's more cost-effective to have a centralized location."

Other projects included in the improvement plan are:

— Putting in a water main extension from the water treatment plant in Chickamauga along Glass Mill Road and Old Bethel Road to the intersection of Highway 341. The estimated cost is $7.3 million.

— Putting in a water main extension from Tatum Road up Lookout Mountain to McLemore Hotel and Conference Center with three pump stations and including two 500,000-gallon water storage tanks. The estimated cost is $7.5 million.

— Adding a new storage tank at the upgraded water treatment plant to provide for adequate water pressure, water storage for spikes in water demand and additional fire protection. The estimated cost is $3.01 million.

— Putting in a water main extension from Coke Oven wellfield to Mountain View storage water tanks to help with the high-pressure issues in the north part of the water distribution system. The estimated cost is $5.2 million.

— Putting in a water main extension from Flarity Road at the Georgia/Alabama state line to Highway 157 and north to Camp Adahi Girl Scout camp. Estimated cost is $2.070 million.

Along with the $5 million of American Rescue Plan money Walker County will allocate for the plan, the Walker County Water and Sewerage Authority will supply $20 million in project funding and will seek an additional $20 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds from the state of Georgia's Office of Planning and Budget to help pay for the projects.

(READ MORE: Walker County residents call for resignation of Commissioner Shannon Whitfield)

Whitfield said the projects will be completed in order of importance with the money provided by the county and authority, regardless of whether additional funds are secured.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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