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Troubled waters of Cedar Creek Reservoir sit in limbo

Gainesville, Hall County remain at odds over control of local water source

POSTED: March 24, 2013 1:00 a.m.

One goal from the recent Gainesville Public Utilities Workshop is to resolve the status of Cedar Creek Reservoir, which had been a source of dispute between the city and Hall County on the ownership of the water and infrastructure on the site.

The 141-acre lake off Timber Ridge Road in East Hall County has been on a back burner since the U.S. Supreme Court last year refused to hear an appeal to the 2011 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that water supply was an originally intended authorized use of Lake Lanier, reversing an earlier decision in the tri-state water wars.

However, interviews with officials in both Gainesville and Hall County say their positions on the 2006 agreement governing the ownership and operation of the reservoir remain unchanged. Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division is waiting for a resolution before issuing a new permit for the water supply.

“We own the reservoir,” Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said.

The tri-state wars refer to decades of legal battles by the states of Georgia, Florida and Alabama to control the water that flows from Lanier through the Chattahoochee River to the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the 11th Circuit Court ruling, Hall County is moving forward on its plan to provide 72.5 million gallons of drinking water per day drinking water to residents in Northeast Georgia by building the Glades Farm Reservoir on 850 acres in northwest Hall.

The favorable court decision allows Hall County officials to let water flow from the Glades’ dam to the Flat Creek tributary and into Lanier, and completely remove Cedar Creek from its plans. The change is expected to save the county at least $200 million on the Glades project.

Hall officials have previously asserted that the water in Cedar Creek was the county’s because it built the reservoir and still holds its water withdrawal permit, since expired.

The face of the Board of Commissioners since has changed, with Richard Mecum replacing Tom Oliver as chairman.

“We’d like to know the new commission’s position,” said Gainesville Public Works Director Kelly Randall. “We don’t know that there’s any dispute.”

Mecum said he’s spoken to former commissioners about the history of the reservoir, and he’s read the 2006 agreement. But he said he has a lot of questions that he’s hoping to address at the commissioners’ retreat Tuesday and Wednesday mornings at the Hall County Government Center.

He questions why commissioners gave the reservoir facilities to the city in 2006.

“What were they thinking?” Mecum said. “After you read it (the agreement), you have more questions than answers.”

County Administrator Randy Knighton said Hall’s position is the same as before, that the County owns Cedar Creek Reservoir and the property, not Gainesville; and that the county holds the water permit and the right to withdraw water. The permit expired in 2012 with no decision or agreement reached.

“There are issues the county and the city are not in agreement on,” Knighton said.

Randall said the city still wants to honor the agreement and use the water from Cedar Creek to supply Gainesville’s needs. The city and Hall County agreed in 2006 to have Gainesville operate and maintain the county’s fledgling water distribution system.

Hall County built a pump station on the Oconee River Dam that pumped water to Cedar Creek and built another pump on the reservoir to send water to a planned water treatment plant. Gainesville still wants to build that East Hall plant, Randall said.

Before the agreement, Hall County was serving about 800 customers and buying water from White County. White County officials said in 2005 they couldn’t afford to sell water to Hall any longer because of their growing population.

The unified system today includes 113 miles of installed water mains, an elevated storage tank and fire hydrants across the county.

Gainesville, which already had about 45,000 customers, took over the operation, maintenance and financial responsibility, including assuming payments on two Hall County water loans from the state. The agreement says the city would get 1/25th of ownership each year until it owned the entire system after 25 years.

When asked if this was a sort of lease-to-own deal, county officials characterized it as more of a lease management agreement. Knighton said he didn’t want to dwell too much on one part of the agreement because there are matters of interpretation in the agreement where there are disagreements.

If either party wants to break the agreement, both parties have to agree in writing and Hall County has to pay back all the city’s capital improvement expenses after the agreement went into effect and the ownership value the city has accrued.

Knighton and Dunagan both expressed hope of a future resolution.

A draft environmental impact report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Glades’ project is slated for June. The corps is reviewing a permit application submitted by Hall County in June 2011 for the reservoir. According to the corps’ current timetable, the final EIS may be issued late this year and a permit decision is expected in early 2014.


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