Imagine this scenario: You’ve got an ample supply of a product that lots of people need, but the government is restricting how much of it you can sell.
That’s the situation in White County. Compared to most communities in North Georgia, the county’s water supply is in relatively good shape. In fact, officials are eager to sell more water, to make up for a revenue shortfall.
But last week, Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered 61 counties in the Georgia’s drought-stricken northern half to cut their water use by 10 percent, regardless of how much they have available.
"In reality, we have plenty of water," said Buddy Belflower, a member of the White County Planning Commission who also serves on the board of the White County Water Authority. "But of course we have to comply with what the (Georgia Environmental Protection Division) and the governor tell us to do."
White County gets its water from the 35-acre Turner Creek Reservoir, off Albert Reid Road between U.S. 129 and Ga. 75 north of Cleveland.
Though the reservoir is currently about 5 feet below its full pool, it’s small enough that a few heavy rains could fill it up fairly quickly. It’s also higher than many other North Georgia reservoirs because the county doesn’t withdraw as much water as it used to.
For years, White County provided water to about 850 customers in North and East Hall who could not be served by Gainesville’s water system. But last year, Gainesville Public Utilities built a water tower in Clermont that improved water pressure for those neighborhoods, and the city no longer needed to buy water from White. "We were treating 44 million gallons a month when we had Hall County," said Gary Howe, director of the White County Water Authority. "Now, in the winter, we’re treating about 17 million gallons a month."
That’s great for water conservation; not so great for the agency’s bottom line.
"We need revenue, both for daily operating expenses and for building new (water) lines," he said. "I’m at minimal staff now, with about 12 people working in construction, maintenance and plant operations."
Currently, the authority has about 1,700 customers in White County and wants to recruit about 500 more. A few weeks ago, the board voted to slash the price of a new water meter to encourage people to hook up to the system.
But on Oct. 23, Perdue ordered counties to cut their water withdrawals by 10 percent compared to the amount they used last winter.
"You’ve got to take off 10 percent, plus whatever amount you’ve grown in the past year," said Howe. "We’re setting 120 to 130 meters a year, so I have to take into account how much those new customers are using."
The EPD permit for Turner Creek reservoir allows withdrawals of 1.8 million gallons per day. Howe said that’s been reduced to 1.62 million gallons per day.
"The withdrawal doesn’t matter much, because we’re still way below our limit," he said. "But we’re currently producing 400,000 gallons (of treated water) per day. I have to drop that down to 360,000 and still serve the same amount of customers, plus anyone new who comes in."
So the water authority’s dreams of increased revenue are fading.
"Basically, instead of encouraging growth, we have to hope it doesn’t hit us," said Howe. "A guy from EPD was in my office (Thursday), and I said, ‘What if I had a potential (commercial) customer that wanted to come into the county and employ 300 people?’ He said yeah, that’s a problem for everyone."
Howe emphasized that the authority is a nonprofit organization and no one is looking to get rich. The reservoir was built by the state about 20 years ago, and the county created the authority with approval from the Georgia General Assembly. It’s governed by a seven-member board that sets water rates.
But the authority has an annual operating budget of about $1.5 million, and Howe has to pay those expenses even if there’s less money coming in.
"We have to encourage water conservation in order to meet the state mandate," he said. "But by telling people to conserve, we lose revenue. I expect we’re going to have to raise rates."
Howe said if a rate increase is necessary, he hopes it will target industrial users rather than residents.
"We would consider charging industries more, because the only way you can be sure that people conserve would be to raise their rates so high they don’t want to use as much water," he said.
Exceeding the limits set by the EPD could also cost water users.
"If we don’t stay in compliance, we’ll be fined, and then we may have to raise our rates to pay for that," said Howe.
But at least the reservoir won’t be running dry anytime soon.
"Obviously there’s supply concerns for the future," said Belflower. "But so many White County residents are still on wells and are not covered by public water."
Tourism, one of the county’s biggest industries, also helps keep overall usage down.
"We’re fortunate that we have a number of second homes or vacation homes, so those people are not using water year-round," said Howe.
White County Commission Chairman Chris Nonnemaker said he hopes to convene a "water summit" for the county soon, involving the cities of Cleveland and Helen, the school system, chambers of commerce, convention and visitors’ bureau, the water authority and development authority.
"The state is being criticized for not having a water plan," he said. "It’s just as important that local communities have a water plan."
Nonnemaker said even though the county’s reservoir is in good shape, he worries about relying on Turner Creek as the sole source of community water.
But there is a Plan B. The water line running down to Hall County still exists.
"A few years ago, it was kind of an issue with some people that White County was selling water to Hall County," Nonnemaker said. "The best thing about that is that there’s a water line now that doesn’t know direction. If something should happen today in White County with our water supply, we’d just go down the county line and call them. We can transfer water back and forth."