Hall County’s planned Glades Reservoir made the short list for up to $40 million in state funding, the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority announced Wednesday.
The decision marks a shift in how Georgia’s state government has funded water projects. Historically, the state would lend local governments money to build reservoirs that meet local needs.
While loan programs continue, Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration also wants to invest directly in reservoirs. In return for its money, state government would get access to water it could release downstream, for example, to protect wildlife during droughts and increase the water flowing into Alabama and Florida.
The Hall County application asked for slightly more than $14.5 million, but the final amount of state help will be negotiated with GEFA and officials with the Environmental Protection Division, said GEFA spokesman Shane Nix.
In a news release, Richard Mecum, Hall County Board of Commissioners chairman, said the county would get paid for some of the investment it has already made.
“The Governor’s Water Supply Program funds will reimburse Hall County for (its) land acquisition expenditures to date and will be used to purchase buffer property, easements, and other necessary property components of the Glades project,” he said.
Glades Reservoir is planned as an 850-acre reservoir in the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin of North Hall that could provide 30 million to 40 million gallons of water per day to Northeast Georgia residents. Sending more water into the federal reservoir at Lake Lanier has been a flashpoint in the tri-state water dispute.
Reservoir critic Sally Bethea, executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said Deal is pushing the project despite no demonstrated local need for it.
“It is not a surprise that Glades Reservoir will receive state funding, given the fact that this administration is a major advocate for the project,” she said.
GEFA Executive Director Kevin Clark denied that Deal, who is from Hall County, had shown any favoritism by making the Glades Reservoir a finalist for state investment.
“This is not a politically motivated decision,” he said during a public meeting. “This is a key project.”
Glades is expected to cost about $130 million, and some of the expense could fall on county taxpayers. The original April application included a capacity fee and rate increases for ratepayers, many of whom get their water from the city of Gainesville.
The amended version takes those out and adds a $70 annual fee to each of the 75,000 taxed parcels of land in the county. Hall officials have said, and the application states, it’s one financing method being considered.
Gainesville City Council tabled a joint agreement in early October that supported Hall County’s application to the state to fund Glades Reservoir. The agreement stated the city had reviewed and concurred with Hall County’s application to the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority because it wouldn’t require water rate or fee increases on Gainesville water customers.
Deal’s administration has made a priority of investing in projects that give state government access to water it could send downstream to depleted waterways, particularly during droughts. That could be useful since Georgia has fought since 1990 with neighboring Alabama and Florida over regional water usage.
Communities south of Atlanta and Alabama and Florida contend Atlanta uses too much water upstream, leaving too little for downstream residents, businesses and wildlife.
“What we are purchasing is the ability to store that water and have access to it in times of drought,” Clark said.
Florida last month asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide how much water the states can take from the basin formed by the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint rivers. Florida blames metro Atlanta’s water consumption for causing a die-off of oysters in Apalachicola Bay.
In 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that Atlanta had little right to take water from that federal reservoir. Magnuson threatened to drastically restrict metro Atlanta’s water withdrawals from Lake Lanier unless the three states reached a political agreement. A federal appeals court overturned that decision, finding that metro Atlanta could take water from the reservoir.
Billy Birdwell, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah Division, said the draft environmental impact report for the Hall County project is expected to be completed late this year or early next year.
Besides Glades, a board voted to allocate funding to Indian Creek Reservoir in Carroll County and Richland Creek Reservoir in Paulding County. Another $5 million is earmarked for a project testing water desalination in coastal Georgia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.