Officials from Gainesville and Hall County governments say they remain at a stalemate over the control of the Cedar Creek Reservoir.
Both sides say there’s been little effort to reach an agreement, and each places the responsibility to restart discussions in the other party’ s court.
Representatives from both governments will have no choice but to discuss the issue in late April. They are scheduled to update the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s issues committee April 21 on the status of their plans for Hall County’s future water supply.
And unless something changes between now and then, they will present very different viewpoints on the future control of the Reservoir.
The 141-acre lake off Timber Ridge Road in eastern Hall County is the county’s only immediate alternate water supply if a July federal ruling limiting Gainesville’s access to Lake Lanier’s water becomes reality.
The ruling threatens to severely limit Gainesville’s ability to withdraw water from Lake Lanier, if, by July 2012, Georgia has not negotiated an agreement with Florida and Alabama over its use or if Congress has not reauthorized the lake to make current withdrawals legal.
But because the city and county cannot agree on the control of Cedar Creek, the facilities needed to withdraw, treat and transport the water from the backup supply likely won’t be built in time for federal District Court Judge Paul Magnuson’s deadline.
Hall County built Cedar Creek reservoir in 2000 using special purpose sales tax revenues. A 2006 agreement handed ownership of the reservoir to Gainesville, along with the rest of the former Hall County water system.
However, the agreement did not mention — at least, specifically — the permit needed to withdraw water from the reservoir. The omitted word left Gainesville’s future treatment plant at Cedar Creek at the mercy of county officials who still have control of the reservoir’s withdrawals.
And today, the county wants the reservoir back from the city to help pay for a future reservoir.
On the other hand, Gainesville wants the county to keep its 4-year-old word.
Two months ago, county officials offered to the city a draft agreement that would replace the 2006 deal. The proposal deems Hall County as the main supplier of raw water in the county and leaves Gainesville with its current obligation to treat and distribute it.
The draft also calls for a review of water rates for customers outside the Gainesville city limits. Hall County customers currently pay twice what city residents pay for water.
Gainesville officials have said they want to continue operating on the current agreement. They point out that the current agreement is only 4 years old, and was signed by three out of the current five county commissioners.
But Hall County says the old agreement was out of date the day Magnuson issued his ruling on Lake Lanier. Since then, the county has made plans for the proposed Glades Reservoir to serve as the primary source of drinking water in Hall County.
It needs Cedar Creek to make those plans a reality.
In light of Magnuson’s ruling, county officials have multiplied their plans for a reservoir that would be capable of providing the area with 6 million gallons of water per day to one that could provide as much as 100 million.
And with its planned capabilities, the costs for Glades have also grown. The 2006 agreement does not take that fact into consideration, county officials say.
“The (current) agreement itself, if you think about it, doesn’t serve Gainesville’s purpose nor does it serve the county’s purpose ... They don’t have a permit. They need a permit to move forward,” Hall County Administrator Charley Nix said.
“The Magnuson ruling changed the entire landscape of where we are with all this. The county needs to, at this stage — and I believe that Gainesville, as well, needs to — look further down the road with all this water.”
Under the proposed new agreement, Hall County would operate both Cedar Creek and Glades reservoirs, selling the raw water from both to Gainesville and other water systems.
The county would use the revenue to pay for the construction of Glades without placing the burden of the cost on property taxpayers, Assistant County Administrator Phil Sutton said.
“We don’t have an agreement that deals with ‘how do we get 100 million gallons of water a day,’” Sutton said. “That old agreement never contemplated that situation.”
City officials call the proposed agreement “unacceptable.” City Manager Kip Padgett said he relayed the message to Nix in a meeting earlier this month.
Since then, neither side has attempted to negotiate further. Nix said the ball is in the city’s court. City officials say they are waiting on the county to keep its word.
“I think that if you’re not going to sign the agreement and it’s not acceptable to you then ... at that stage of the game I think it’s up to them to schedule something. I don’t know what else to do. We can’t make everybody come to discuss it with us,” Nix said. “... I don’t know what they’re unhappy with in the agreement, so I don’t know how to respond them.”
Though Padgett said he agrees that the Magnuson ruling changed the county’s water situation, he said it means the 2006
agreement should be put into overdrive, not thrown out the window.
“The county’s trying to lump Glades Farm and Cedar Creek into one issue,” Gainesville Mayor Pro Tem Danny Dunagan said. “And Glade Farm and Cedar Creek are different issues. Cedar Creek’s sitting there ready to be used. Glade Farm is how many years away — who knows? Even if they ever get their permit. I mean it’s not a given that they’re going to get a permit, plus it’s got to be built.”
“Our feeling is, we shouldn’t hold up Cedar Creek waiting on Glade Farm. We might not can afford to do that,” he said.
Dunagan said the city is supports the county’s plans for Glades Reservoir, but that finding a way to pay for Glades is a “nonissue” when it comes to handing over the permit to Cedar Creek.
But that means Cedar Creek remains a useless pond. Because the city does not have the permit to withdraw water from the reservoir, it can’t build a water treatment plant there.
If the sides cannot reach an agreement, there are few options. Hall County Chairman Tom Oliver said the commission would be willing to take the issue to binding arbitration. Dunagan said the city could sue the county for the permit, but that is not likely.
“Really and truly, we could, I guess, sue them, but that’s not going to do any good,” said Dunagan. “All that’s going to do is cost the taxpayers money.”
The only other option the city has, outside of negotiation or litigation, is to wait until the county’s permit to withdraw water from Cedar Creek expires in summer 2012.
Until there is a deal, the project for an immediate back-up water supply for Hall County is on hold. Gainesville’s Public Utilities Director Kelly Randall likens the impasse to a hostage situation.
“I’m disappointed that the county would try to use the state water crisis and that they would hold the public health, safety, welfare, economic and otherwise of the Gainesville-Hall County citizenry hostage to try to bully the city into renegotiating an agreement that the two governments just signed four years ago and that three of the sitting county commissioners were party to and signed,” Randall said.
Both Randall and Dunagan say the city could wait until the county’s current permit expires and apply for another permit in the city’s name. Sutton calls the notion an “interesting strategy.”
“I just hope that the county doesn’t want us to wait three years to do that,” Randall said. “It’s just going to put our citizenry at risk.”
But Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell, whose district comprises Gainesville, said it may not be a bad idea to wait.
By 2012, both the city and the county will know the reality of the state’s water situation. And by then, maybe the two sides can come up with a comprehensive water strategy for everyone — not just each government’s individual constituents, he said.
“We’re all speculating on the worst-case scenario with the Magnuson ruling, and I think that lends some hesitancy before anybody throws any big money one way or the other,” Bell said. “I think it’s a good thing that everybody’s thinking this out and not making any hasty decisions, because I think some haste and not really thinking this thing through, the practicality of the agreement, is what got us in this problem in the first place.”
But city and county officials will not be able to avoid the discussion for the next two years. Both are scheduled to present their plans for water supply to the chamber late next month.
And since “the two sides aren’t working together like the state would like to see us work together on this,” Councilman George Wangemann said he thinks the April 21 meeting with chamber officials might be a good chance for the governments to make some progress.
“That would certainly give us a better idea of where the city is and where the county is,” said Wangemann.
It is one of a few things officials from the two governments can agree on when it comes to Cedar Creek. Both Nix and Padgett call it a good chance for an open debate with feedback from county business leaders.
Though he agrees with the rest of his city colleagues, Wangemann said “no one needs to fight over water.”
“We’re all mature adults, and the people are watching us, and I think it’s important that we do what’s in their best interest,” he said.