YOUR TAX DOLLARS

Water project still a dream

South Fulton cities push new reservoir.
Millions spent for land, consulting, but effort remains stalled.

By Chris Joyner cjoyner@ajc.com

For more than a decade, leaders in the South Fulton cities of Union City, Fairburn and Palmetto have pushed forward their dream of building a new reservoir to prepare the area for growth, spending millions in land acquisition and consulting fees.

But opponents say that’s money down the drain and point to recent questions from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an indication that the $114 million Bear Creek Reservoir remains little more than a pipe dream. Among those questions from the Corps: Why not just keep buying water from Atlanta?

“I’m amazed that this far into the process the Corps is still seeking fundamental information,” said Sally Bethea, executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an environmental opponent of Bear Creek and other reservoir projects around the metro area.

Palmetto draws its water from its own smaller reservoir system, but Union City and Fairburn residents receive their water from the city of Atlanta. Atlanta officials want that arrangement to continue.

“We can provide for their water needs currently and their future needs as well,” said Jo Ann Macrina, commissioner of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management.

Right now, Atlanta is providing water to the south Fulton cities under an expired contract, and negotiations for a new contract have stalled. Macrina said a new contract could come with a rate increase to pay for system upgrades, but she would not say how much the city would like to hike the rate.

The ability to control their own rates is one reason the cities want Bear Creek, said Brian Jones, a Union City councilman and chairman of the South Fulton Municipal Regional Water and Sewer Authority. Another is to attract growth, he said.

“It’s not that you can’t get water from Atlanta, but you have projects that look at your cities and they want to know if you can supply them with 5-10 million gallons a day,” he said. “If you have your own supply and lines in play you can say, ‘Yes, we can.’”

But getting to that “yes” is complicated and expensive.

The project has none of the needed federal or state per-

mits, yet the authority claims Bear Creek will start operations in less than three years.

In the meantime, residents of the three cities are paying about $2 million a year annually on $42 million in bond debt on the project.

Jones acknowledges that the process is frustrating.

“My disappointment is there is no decision being made,” he said. “You would think having the additional reservoir would be great for the region.”

Instead of moving forward, Jones said, the authority is caught in a paperwork loop with the Corps in a years-long attempt to justify the cities’ plan to build another dam in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin. This month, the authority submitted its latest answer to the Corps’ questions, much of it referring back to earlier answers to earlier questions on alternative sites, cost comparisons and environmental concerns.

Spokesman Billy Bird-well said the Corps is reviewing the authority’s latest missive.

“We consider the ongoing reviews standard procedures for a project of this magnitude,” he said in a statement. “We cannot predict, at this time, when all reviews will be complete.”

It’s not just the federal government the cities have failed to convince. The authority last year asked for money from the Governor’s Water Supply Program, a fund established by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2011 to kick-start reservoirs and other water projects, and was turned away. This year the authority asked for $42.6 million in a combination of loans and direct state investment — enough to pay off the bond debt already taken out on the project. For the second year in a row, the project got nothing.

The judges gave Bear Creek low scores in a variety of categories. Of particular concern with the judges was the cost-effectiveness of the project and the certainty that it would be completed at all.

The judges also decided the area would not need the additional water until well past 2050.

Bethea said she thinks the Corps is asking the right questions, including whether the cities, with a combined population of about 37,000, should just stick with the status quo.

“Everything we’ve known for six to eight years is that (Atlanta) can provide this water and is interested in providing it,” she said. “If I were a taxpayer in one of these cities, I’d definitely be asking questions about the amount of money being spent for over a decade with nothing to show for it.”

Fairburn Mayor Mario Avery said the cities involved in the project remain optimistic, but he added a note of caution.

“We’re still hopeful that this is a viable project. In summary, that’s the best I can give you,” he said.

Both Avery and Jones mentioned the project began under prior administrations and before the 2008 Great Recession challenged long-held assumptions about metro area growth. Prompted by the Corps’ questioning, the authority has contracted with the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government for new population growth projections.

Avery faced no opposition in his re-election this month to a second term as mayor. Looking ahead, he sounds pragmatic when he talks about Bear Creek.

“I’m really hoping between now and when I get out of office there is a resolution with our water authority, one way or the other,” he said.