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Gainesville, Hall still at odds over Cedar Creek Reservoir
City puts forth September deadline to resolve issue
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Gainesville and Hall County haven't made much progress on their efforts to resolve a tiff over the future of an East Hall reservoir.

But Gainesville officials have set a deadline to do so by September 2012.

In a letter to Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Oliver, Gainesville Mayor Ruth Bruner has asked county officials to rekindle a stagnant effort at mediation over ownership of Cedar Creek Reservoir.

Oliver, in a short response dated Wednesday, said the county will consider the city's request after the holidays.

Gainesville officials were moved to action this month over the county's plan to renew water withdrawal permits at the reservoir.

Currently, the county has two permits from the state: one to withdraw water directly from the Oconee River to fill the reservoir and another to pull water out of the reservoir.

Both of those permits expire August 2012.

In September, Hall County contacted the state's Environmental Protection Division in an effort to renew the permits. The renewal application also seeks to modify the permit for Cedar Creek to account for a plan to connect the East Hall reservoir with the future Glades Reservoir in North Hall.

The county's permit application to EPD seeks to significantly increase the amount of water it can withdraw from Cedar Creek. It outlines a plan to pump as much as 80 million gallons per day from the Chattahoochee River in the Appalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin to Cedar Creek in the Oconee basin.

The county's proposal for Glades Reservoir on a tributary of the Chattahoochee upstream of Lake Lanier is still under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The county's permit request shows county officials are making official plans to pump water from Glades to Cedar Creek and distribute the water from there.

Though county officials have discussed the plan to use Cedar Creek in conjunction with Glades for nearly two years, city officials, who just spent $2 million designing a water treatment plant for Cedar Creek, say they had not been made aware of the technical details of the county's plan.

The future water treatment plant at Cedar Creek has been designed to account for water from the Oconee River basin. It has not been designed to treat water coming from the Chattahoochee, which can be heavily laden with sediment during cooler months, said Gainesville's top water official.

"We don't understand what they're talking about doing and why they're talking about doing it," Gainesville Public Utilities Director Kelly Randall said.

But county officials don't agree that the city was ignorant of the county's intentions.

"They've known all along we were planing to use Cedar Creek," Hall County Public Works Director Ken Rearden said.

The core of the issue between the two governments is the ownership and future of Cedar Creek.

The county built the 141-acre lake off Timber Ridge Road in 2000 and deeded it over to the city in 2006 as part of a 25-year lease-management agreement that allowed the city to gradually take ownership of the old Hall County water system and its debt.

Today, Gainesville is the drinking water distributor for most Hall County residents and charges out-of-city residents nearly twice the rate it charges those who live in Gainesville.

Hall County's willingness to negotiate with Gainesville depends upon the city's willingness to change that rate structure, Oliver said Wednesday.

Hall County's efforts at new withdrawal permits at Cedar Creek, including an assertion by Rearden to the EPD that Hall County owned Cedar Creek, prompted Bruner's Dec. 13 letter to Oliver.

Bruner's letter gives an ultimatum for the county and the city to "make substantial progress" toward an amicable agreement by February 2012, and completely resolve the issue of ownership by September 2012.

Her letter also warns Hall County officials to refrain from "making any further representations" to state or federal officials with regards to Cedar Creek's ownership or future use in the meantime unless they want to settle the matter in court.

"Please be advised that we will consider any future communications by the county to state or federal officials that could prejudice the city's interest in Cedar Creek Reservoir as an indication that we have reached an impasse and that the city has no choice but to seek a judicial resolution," Bruner wrote.

City and county leaders have been talking about — and postponing — negotiations over the reservoir for more than a year.

Both governments agreed in September 2010 to nonbinding mediation at the urging of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's previous director, Allen Barnes, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

Both governments even selected two delegates — Oliver and Bruner as well as Gainesville Mayor Pro Tem Danny Dunagan and Hall Commissioner Ashley Bell — to take part in the discussions.

Then in February, the county pushed off planned negotiations with the city, citing a massive change in administration. The negotiations were postponed again in May once city and county officials got word that a panel of appeals court judges would soon determine the validity of a ruling that limited Hall County's access to Lake Lanier.

The EPD, too, is waiting on the two governments to make nice over Cedar Creek.

"We would prefer that the city and county reach some resolution on that issue before we make a decision on whether to issue a permit (to the county) or not," said Tim Cash, assistant chief of EPD's watershed protection branch. "...We really need the city and county to get together on this."

Oliver said he'll be glad to sit down with Gainesville after the new year begins. He said the county is interested in selling water from Glades to Gainesville, so the city can distribute it to customers in Hall County.

But he says he wants to talk about more issues than the ownership of Cedar Creek.

"The issue is not necessarily who owns it," Oliver said. "The issue is who is in control of the (water) rate structure. The county contends that we should have representation in establishing rate structures. ... I will not support that the county does not have a seat at the table establishing the (water) rates."

 

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