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Staff Graphic by Laura W. McNutt

SUMMERVILLE, Ga. -- Chattooga County could be one of the first counties in Georgia to take advantage of new legislation allowing private-public partnerships to fund water projects.

Commissioner Jason Winters said the county could work with Forestar Real Estate Group to develop Regal Springs in eastern Chattooga into a "very low-cost, high-volume water resource."

"This resource could completely meet the needs of our county and help some of the others," he said. "For Walker, Chattooga and Floyd [counties], it's a great selling point to say we have guaranteed water."

The spring -- located 4 1/2 miles from Floyd County and about 6 miles from Walker -- is believed to pump out as many as 12 million gallons per day. Winters says initial talks have outlined a plan to collect 4 million to 6 million gallons a day from the spring and store it above ground in half-million-gallon tanks.

"No reservoir, no lake," Winters said, dispelling talk that the surrounding area could be flooded.

But working out the details will take time, Winters said, especially financing the work.

As early as March 2010, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., requested $4 million from the Senate Appropriations Committee for water system improvements in Walker, Chattooga and Floyd counties, including "developing Regal Springs into a water supply for a tri-county area that includes Chattooga, Floyd and Walker counties."

The project is not listed in the appropriations committee's 2011 list of water and energy appropriations.

Winters foresees some type of public-private partnership with Forestar, which would be allowed under legislation passed earlier this year.

Senate Bill 122 allows local governments to enter into partnerships with private groups to fund and execute a slew of water supply projects.

The spring is on property owned by Texas-based Forestar. A spokeswoman for the company confirmed it was studying the spring, but declined to comment further.

"We don't have a deal," said Tavia C. McCuean, vice president of stewardship and conservation with Forestar. "We don't really think there's anything newsworthy at this point."

In February, Walker, Floyd and Chattooga leaders signed a two-year agreement with Forestar in which the counties pledged to help the company study the spring. The agreement also commits the counties to negotiating a deal with Forestar "for the long-term purchase and sale of access and use of the aquifer."

According to Forestar's website, the company owns 217,000 acres in nine states as well as more than 600,000 net acres of oil and gas mineral interests. Winters said the company had owned the Chattooga land for decades as timber property.

Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said the spring has potential and could be used to bring water lines to southeast Walker County, as well as to industrial clients in Chattooga or Floyd counties.

"The source is great, and there's a lot of different things [that] might be done with it," she said.

Winters said the county has enough water to meet current demand, but the water reserves could help lure an industry to Chattooga, which is one of the most economically depressed counties in North Georgia.

"There's not a lot of communities that have that amount of water," he said.