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South Ga. water project could have impact on Lake Lanier

Critics say Flint River aquifer a waste of tax dollars; backs say it could ease water woes

POSTED: May 12, 2013 12:17 a.m.

On the surface, it seems like an obscure water project in a far corner of the state with no impact on the Hall County area.

But the state Board of Natural Resources’ approval of a $5.1 million aquifer project near Camilla in Baker County could have ramifications statewide, particularly on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin, which includes Lake Lanier.

Proponents say the project, which initially involves just testing and research, could help relieve Georgia’s water woes, especially during times of drought.

Critics say they worry about costs to taxpayers — the project could soar to $1.3 billion — and potential impacts on the environment.

“I applaud the leadership of the state for considering this step as one of the ways to address the water challenges that we all are aware of,” said William Bagwell Jr., 9th District representative on the state Department of Natural Resources board and a Gainesville resident.

“As progress is monitored going forward, I am appreciative of the continued interest shown by stakeholders who are working to equip our state with as many viable options as possible to address water issues.”

Bagwell also heads the board’s land acquisition committee, which considered the proposal before it headed to the full board.

The project has morphed since April 2012, when the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission submitted the application for funding under the Governor’s Water Supply Program.

“After the award was made, the state effectively changed the scope and the project entirely,” said Matt Harper, water supply senior program manager for the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority.

The main difference is the project has only one site: Elmodel Wildlife Management Area, a 1,600-acre hunting ground near Albany.

It’s also more of a research project versus the original idea of just “testing pieces of technology” associated with aquifer “storage and recovery” and having not as much to do with evaluating effectiveness or long-term monitoring, Harper said.

The state basically is trying to determine whether the process is “viable” in terms of “how much water can we get out of that process and what are the water quality concerns,” he said.

The regional commission’s website gives an overview of the lower Flint River Basin project, which “entails pumping water from either a surface water source or a groundwater source into deep aquifers and storing it there until it is withdrawn and discharged into nearby streams to augment low stream flows during extended droughts.”

In an April 2012 letter to the finance authority, Dan Bollinger Sr., executive director of the regional commission, states that “no region of the state is more acutely aware of its water dependency, problems and needs than Southwest Georgia.”

He goes on to write that Southwest Georgia has been “adversely affected by the interstate water conflicts of the ACF basin for the last 22 years.”

During droughts, “numerous stretches of local streams go dry, which imperils fish and two federally listed endangered species of freshwater mussels,” Bollinger states.

He says that by placing a minimum flow of 5,000 cubic feet per second through Jim Woodruff Dam, the federal government “puts a tremendous strain on the whole ACF basin in Georgia during droughts.”

And that includes drawing down “all of its reservoirs on the Chattahoochee River.”

The 38,000-acre Lake Lanier is one of those reservoirs.

“In short, this project can result in moving the needle on water problems in the ACF basis from metro Atlanta to Lake Seminole,” Bollinger writes.

Jim Woodruff Dam and Lake Seminole are at the Georgia-Florida border, where the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers flow in and the Apalachicola flows out.

The DNR board met April 30 to consider allowing the regional commission to have three-year access to the testing site at Elmodel.

Board members asked many questions of state employees regarding the project and “received a number of opinions and comments from outside groups regarding the project,” Bagwell said.

Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to go forward on the project.

“Right now, as we all know, water in Georgia is a very valuable commodity,” said one of the at-large members, Philip A. Wilheit Jr. of Gainesville, in an interview last week.

“Right now, we’re very fortunate to have (Lake Lanier) above full pool, but that’s not something we know stays consistent,” he said.

The project “is nothing but purely research, at this point and time, so we can look at this and say this is a valuable way to potentially conserve water.

“Or it’s something that’s not going to work and we can cross it off the list,” Wilheit said.

The proposal has met loud disapproval from certain advocacy groups.

Gordon Rogers, executive director of Flint Riverkeeper, said, “It is quite interesting that every time the (Gov. Nathan) Deal administration proposes a solution for the (ACF) problem, it involves a pile of taxpayer or ratepayer cash aimed at an expensive project, rather than smaller amounts aimed at conservation and efficiency.”

Sally Bethea, who heads the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said the aquifer project “has failed elsewhere in Georgia, is potentially harmful to nearby wells and to water quality, and could lead to a taking of the riparian rights of downstream landowners.”

She added: “The board’s decision is the quintessential example of putting the cart before the horse, with millions of taxpayer dollars, pristine aquifers and private property rights at stake.”

Joanna Cloud, executive director of the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association, has a different thought on the matter.

“I think all options should be researched and considered in terms of viability for freshwater supply for our state,” she said.

“I think the ultimate solution to long-term water issues in our state will encompass a variety of initiatives involving conservation, storage and possibly additional water supply.”

Wilton Rooks, a Lake Lanier Association vice president and a member of ACF Stakeholders, which seeks to find common ground among a variety of interests in the basin, said he believes that “any technically sound project that takes the pressures off Lake Lanier will be welcome.

“There is more to be achieved with conservation, but there are limits to that,” he said. “More storage, whether at Lanier or other locations, will probably be needed.”

Hall County is proposing the Glades Reservoir project in North Hall as a future water source, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now evaluating the environmental impacts of the 850-acre project.

Plans call for damming up a portion of Flat Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River, to store enough water to provide the county with about 70 million gallons of water a day.

Deal has said he believes a state partnership with Hall County on Glades Reservoir is something “that needs to be explored.”

He said he believes the project has statewide significance.

Bagwell said he believes the Elmodel project is “just one of the potential strategies that ties into all the state water issues.

“Clearly, if a good water strategy can be used in one area of the state, it can supplement what may or may not have to occur in another area of the state,” he said.

However, “it’s really premature for me to be able to accurately say how (the project) impacts Glades, Lake Lanier, West Point Lake (on the Georgia-Alabama border) or any other place in the state ... and we won’t know the answers until the test is implemented and we know the results.

“Once we have the results, we can make a knowledgeable assessment of where we are.”


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