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Reliance on future growth risky for reservoir projects
Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir is a cautionary tale for Glades
This section of Social Circle Fairplay Road in Walton County will be under water when the Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir is built. The road will be re-routed. - photo by Tom Reed

No one can predict the future.

County officials can only make educated guesses when planning projects; in many cases waging millions against the likelihood of future growth.

Such is the case for reservoirs.

When it comes to the proposed Glades Reservoir, Hall County expects to saddle much of the estimated $345 million building cost on future customers.

And while proponents of the reservoir say it is a solid plan, the nearby Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir planned in Walton County is a reminder that the future is unknown.

The Hard Labor reservoir was supposed to be completed by 2015. But following the recession, population growth in the area hasn’t panned out and construction hasn’t yet begun.

“Until some economic development returns to this area, the project will probably be on standby,” said project manager Jimmy Parker, vice president of Precision Planning Inc.

When completed, the estimated $300 million reservoir will provide an average 41 million gallons of water per day to Oconee and Walton counties. The Glades Reservoir in eastern Hall County has a projected yield of 80 million gallons per day, which was increased after U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that Lake Lanier is not an authorized source for drinking water.

Hard Labor project officials have permits in hand but are still in the process of purchasing land for the reservoir. Parker estimates the counties now own about 63 percent of the land needed to build the reservoir.

“It’s about 1,400 acres. There are 220 property owners. It just takes some time to work through appraisals and working with landowners,” Parker said.

Tommy Craig, the attorney who secured the federal 404 permit for the Hard Labor reservoir, is also working toward a permit for the Glades Reservoir.

Craig said the two projects are different and he doesn’t believe the Glades Reservoir will encounter any of the same issues.

For starters, he said, the steep topography of the land will make it possible for the Glades Reservoir to hold more water on less land. Land is the most expensive piece of building a reservoir, he said. Hall County already owns the 850 acres for the Glades Reservoir.

“They use a lot more land and they didn’t have the foresight or luxury of buying all the land on the front end,” Craig said.

Walton and Oconee counties took out revenue bonds to cover the costs of permitting and land acquisition for the Hard Labor reservoir but do not yet have the customer base to take on more debt to pay for construction.

“We’ve got to get out of this slump before we can press on with the bonded funds to start the dam construction,” said Kevin Little, chairman of the Walton County Board of Commissioners.

Little said it’s an issue of supply and demand — there isn’t yet a demand for the water.

“That second bond, we wouldn’t be able to pay it back without future water users,” Little said. “We don’t want it to be a burden to the taxpayers of Walton County.”

Oconee County Finance Director Jeff Benko said the county is paying for the first phase of the reservoir with a $19.5 million revenue bond.

 “You hope when the economy turns around, your customers grow. As you add additional customers, they’ll be paying a fee,” Benko said.

Little said though it is a large undertaking, the reservoir is necessary. Walton County cannot sustain its population on existing resources and currently purchases 25 percent of its water supply from Newton County.

“Walton County feels that water is very vital to our region,” Little said. “We can’t survive without water. Economic development cannot survive without enough water to move forward.”
Benko said the delay in the project is not a concern.

“It’s not on hold. It’s really just slowed down. The subtle difference with that is the project is still very critical to both our counties,” Benko said.

Lee Becker, a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia, has kept close tabs on the project. He believes the situation is more alarming than officials let on.

“The project was built on population growth and water growth projections that are simply unrealistic in today’s economy,” Becker said. “The figures that they used were really suspect under the best of circumstances.”
Becker said as the recent drought and recession have shown, no growth projections are fool proof.

“The real issue is (Oconee) county has decided that the way it will finance its development is through future development,” Becker said. “The collapse of the housing market is real. That’s not something that was anticipated. Everything now is presuming that the housing market will come back in some relatively short order, and I don’t know that’s the case.”

Craig said growth projections for Hall County are more reliable because of the area’s proximity to the interstate highway system.

“I really think it’s foolish to say you’re not going to grow,” Craig said. “Your need for water supply and your tap fees will probably be constant.”

Benko said it’s important to plan for the future but to expect challenges like drought and recession.

“I don’t have the crystal ball but I will tell you that if you’re not expecting somewhere in the future for it to happen again, you’ve got your head in the sand,” Benko said.