Hall County officials got a break last week in moving forward on negotiations with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to have a corps employee walk them through what could have been a deal-breaker for the proposed Glades Reservoir.
They also were offered federal assistance that no other reservoir proposal in the state has ever received.
Federal, state and local officials have stressed that the compromise offered by the corps, made possible by the Water Resources Development Act, is not out of the ordinary.
They cite, as an example, the Georgia Department of Transportation's contract with the corps to expedite state road projects.
Corps officials promise that the agreement won't curtail public participation in the permitting process for a reservoir that could yield as much as 80 million gallons of water per day.
The only difference, they say, is that a corps employee will be dedicated to the county's proposal rather than handling multiple permit applications at once.
"When these agreements are undertaken, the corps follows strict guidelines, oversight and supervision to ensure the work is impartial and adheres to all existing law, regulation, policy and guidance," said Joyce McDonald, corporate communications officer for the corps' Savannah district permitting office.
But the promise of a speedy process concerns Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.
The Riverkeeper organization previously applauded the corps' decision to subject the Glades proposal to a longer, more in-depth permitting process. Bethea said it must be comprehensive enough to ensure natural resources would not be harmed and taxpayer dollars won't be wasted.
There's a lot at stake in the permitting process for Glades in a state seeking to stabilize its water supply.
"How this reservoir is handled will set a precedent for any future water supply reservoirs in the state," Bethea said in an email. "It is essential that we get it right this first time and that political influence and expedited permit reviews not be allowed."
Never in Georgia has the corps used the Water Resources Development Act to speed up the permitting of a reservoir. It wasn't until both the governor and the director of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division stepped in did it happen for Hall County.
Two months ago, the corps told the county its proposal for Glades was too controversial for the federal agency to cut corners on a permit because of the reservoir's link to Lake Lanier in the Chattahoochee River basin.
In a letter to Commission Chairman Tom Oliver, a corps permitting official said the future of Glades would depend upon the outcome of an in-depth environmental impact statement prepared by two independent consulting firms.
Instead of a yearlong permitting process, the EIS promised to take as many as five years to complete and add just as many millions of dollars to the reservoir's cost.
But following the intervention of both Gov. Nathan Deal and EPD Director Allen Barnes, the corps has come back to the county with a compromise: Pay a corps employee to focus only on the Glades permit application and get an answer in a little more than a year and a half.
Deal said he got involved because the corps' July decision "made no sense." As a congressman representing Hall County, Deal had been promised Glades would not be subject to the additional scrutiny of an EIS.
Now as Georgia governor, at stake for Deal is $300 million he has promised in state funds to bolster reservoir projects across the state.
Behind Glades, there are about 10 projects that could be eligible for that funding. If each is subject to a full environmental impact statement, those funds will disappear quickly, he said.
Barnes insists that his intercession with the corps had little to do with Hall County or its proposal to build Glades.
"I didn't really intervene on behalf of Glades," said Barnes. "I intervened on behalf of the state."
He said the meeting with the corps was to discuss the federal permitting process and to "get a clarification as to how we were going to move forward" on future reservoir projects in the state.
"The governor has vision to increase the water supply for the state of Georgia and we need to do so in as expeditious a manner as possible," Barnes said.
What happens with Glades might just tell the future of reservoir permitting in the state, Deal said.
"That's why I think it's important that we make sure that that precedent is not any more restrictive in terms of mandates than is absolutely necessary," Deal said.