Almost every county in North Georgia is at risk of running dry if the historic drought continues through next year. But Habersham County has more reason to worry than most.
The city of Baldwin's water plant has a permit from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to withdraw up to 4 million gallons a day from the Chattahoochee River. Most of that water is sold to the city of Demorest, whose system serves about the half the county but doesn't have its own treatment plant.
But with Habersham's population at about 42,000 and growing quickly, the county will need additional water before long. And the EPD has nixed the idea of withdrawing any more from the Chattahoochee, since that would further reduce the flow to Lake Lanier. So county officials are exploring their options.
"We don't really have a reservoir that would allow us to store large amounts of water," said Habersham public works director Terry Purcell. "There's been talk of building a reservoir for some time, but there have been disagreements between the county and some of the municipalities."
Though Habersham is relatively small, ranking 111th out of Georgia's 159 counties in geographic area, and though nearly all of its residents live in the county's southern half, there are eight separate water systems in Habersham.
Seven towns - Alto, Baldwin, Clarkesville, Cornelia, Demorest, Mount Airy and Tallulah Falls - each have their own water department, and the county government serves part of unincorporated Habersham.
The result is a confusing hodgepodge of jurisdictions.
"The Habersham system buys water from the city of Demorest, which buys theirs from Baldwin," Purcell said. "Clarkesville draws from the Soque River, but they're at the limit of what they can withdraw. Cornelia draws from Hazel Creek and also has an impoundment on Camp Creek."
He said Cornelia recently had to install a new pumping system because Hazel Creek had dropped so low they weren't able to pull enough water out of it. And Clarkesville's intake on the Soque also is inadequate. Alto, Mount Airy and Tallulah Falls rely solely on wells for their water.
Purcell said county and city officials plan to meet Monday with the EPD to discuss water intakes and plant capacities. They'll be armed with a new document: a comprehensive water plan that the county commissioned from Gainesville-based consulting firm Jordan, Jones & Goulding.
"There is a fair amount of water in the county, but it's predominantly spoken for," said Tommy Furlow, the JJ&G engineer who compiled the study. "We're looking at other sources."
One possibility, he said, is drawing water from three area lakes that are owned by Georgia Power.
"But when we approached Georgia Power, they said they want to deal with the county as a whole, not with individual cities," Furlow said. "It would make a lot of sense to combine the systems."
The EPD has also recommended trying to consolidate the systems, especially in light of the county's latest move. Habersham has signed a contract to buy up to 1 million gallons a day from the city of Toccoa. "Toccoa had a very large textile mill that closed down some years ago, so their system has excess capacity," Furlow said.
Conversely, Habersham has two major employers that need copious amounts of water: Scovill Fasteners in Clarkesville and the Fieldale Farms poultry processing plant in Cornelia.
Purcell said the water Habersham is buying from Toccoa will already be treated, and will flow into Habersham's system via a 16-inch-diameter pipeline. That line is currently under construction and scheduled for completion in May.
"Our system has about 500 customers and uses 300,000 to 400,000 gallons a day," Purcell said. "The pipeline will also supply some water to Clarkesville, which has about 2,200 meters. And Demorest wants to tie into the line as a backup source."
Demorest already has drilled wells in search of more water. If the city is able to obtain some of its water from Toccoa, it would reduce the burden on Baldwin's system.
Baldwin itself has several old wells that are no longer used, but the town is considering renovating and reactivating them. "It's ironic, because 25 years ago, we got all our water from wells," said Baldwin Mayor Mark Reed. "Then we got the intake on the Chattahoochee, and we put all our eggs in that basket. Now we're back to wells again."
Reed said there never seemed to be a pressing need to build a reservoir, "because we had the Chattahoochee. In the 1980s, there was a referendum to build a reservoir at Hazel Creek, but it was defeated."
With subdivisions spreading out over much of the county, constructing a reservoir would be more problematic now that it was back then. But Reed said aside from that, there are physical barriers.
"Our topography is an issue. We're on the ridgeline of the Appalachians, so there's not a whole lot of flat land available," he said. "And the federal government owns much of the northern part of the county (where portions of the Chattahoochee National Forest are located)."
Nevertheless, the county is exploring the feasibility of a reservoir somewhere in Habersham.
"Getting water from Toccoa is a short-term solution," Furlow said. "If a reservoir can be built, it could take about 10 years."
However, Purcell considers Toccoa to be a more permanent arrangement. "In the future, we may need additional water from Stephens County," he said. "We would need a larger line, and would also have to build a central water treatment plant."
In the meantime, Reed thinks all systems in the county need to focus on water conservation.
"A lot of our infrastructure is old," he said. "(In the Baldwin system) we've found and repaired some major leaks that were losing thousands of gallons of water every day."
Purcell said the county has already achieved the EPD's mandatory 10 percent cut in water use.
"There are signs all over the county that say, ‘Total (outdoor) water ban,'" he said. "We can't afford to violate it."
But Reed doesn't think combining all the water systems is going to do much to conserve water. He points out that each city has its own technology, billing department and water pricing structure. Bringing uniformity to those diverse systems could be a bureaucratic nightmare.
"Consolidating the water systems would be complicated," he said. "And I don't know if any of us are smart enough to figure it out."