A federally-mandated study could delay initial approval of Hall County’s planned Glades Reservoir for several years.
And a recent ruling in the tri-state water wars, while considered a victory for Georgia, also may hinder the project.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers notified local officials a week ago that the county’s plan to dam Flat Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River north of Lake Lanier, is too controversial for a fast-track permit.
The Glades project is supposed to provide 80 million gallons of water per day to the Northeast Georgia region. It would impound water headed for the Chattahoochee River, creating an 850-acre lake north of Lake Lanier.
Lanier, main source of drinking water for Hall County and metro Atlanta, is the subject of a decadeslong legal dispute among Georgia, Alabama and Florida over rights to the water that flows nearly 400 miles from its dam to Apalachicola Bay in the Gulf of Mexico.
Hall officials had hoped to have the federal permit needed to build Glades in hand by this time next year, having only to submit to the corps’ requirement of an environmental assessment.
But the project’s proximity to the controversy surrounding Lake Lanier calls for a more in-depth study of potential impacts of the reservoir, allowing for more public input, corps officials say. Meeting the requirements of that study means county officials might not get federal permission for Glades for another five years, though some water officials say it should take no longer than two.
“It could take a year, but most of these things take two to five years to process that I’ve been involved with,” said David Crosby, deputy chief of the regulatory division for the corps’ Savannah district.
Members of the Hall County Board of Commissioners say they feel they were misled about the permitting process. The decision handed down in the July 8 letter still has county officials trying to figure their next move.
Board Chairman Tom Oliver still isn’t convinced that the county will have to meet the requirements of the study, calling the corps’ letter a bureaucratic “stall tactic.”
Commissioner Scott Gibbs says the county was told the project would be put on the fast-track for a permit.
“Now, they’re talking about this long, drawn-out process,” Gibbs said.
Another reservoir stalled
The only other reservoir project in Georgia that has been subjected to the study never came to fruition. An application for a permit to build the West Georgia Regional Reservoir on the Tallapoosa River was withdrawn after the corps said its permit would hinge on the study.
The West Georgia Regional Reservoir was a proposal for a 3,500-acre reservoir on a river surrounded by controversy.
Spearheaded by former state House Speaker Tom Murphy, it was supposed to be the first of many reservoirs to help “drought-proof” Georgia, according to Charlie Walker, executive director of the Haralson County Water Authority.
“I think (the application) was withdrawn because we said they needed an EIS (environmental impact study),” said Crosby.
The proposal sparked a lawsuit by Alabama, which benefits from the water flowing from the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin, said Doug Baughman, the senior scientist and water resources practice lead for CH2M Hill’s eastern region office.
“That’s what got Alabama all fired up,” Baughman said.
Georgia hired CH2M Hill to put together an analysis of the water resource needs of the region. But when the firm’s data did not show a need for a reservoir as big as the one proposed on the Tallapoosa, the project stalled, Baughman said.
Money also has hindered the reservoir’s progress, Walker said.
Though the West Georgia Regional Reservoir never was completed, Baughman says the corps’ requirement of the study isn’t a death certificate for Glades.
“It’s simply extending the process,” Baughman said.
It also means that the corps will be in control of the analysis, choosing one of three county-preferred engineers to perform the study. The county remains responsible for the costs of the study.
“That’s where the kicker’s going to come in on Glades Farm, is that they’re going to have to hire a third party beyond the crew that’s been doing the work for the county to-date to do that EIS,” Baughman said.
“... The corps of engineers may find that (the current consultants on the Glades project) are acceptable. It’s been my experience that that’s usually not the case, but politics being what it is, you never know.”
In light of the corps’ decision, Commissioner Ashley Bell has said he would like to consider revising the county’s permit application to return to the original proposal for a reservoir with a smaller yield.
But even at 6.4 million gallons per day, a number of people asked the corps to conduct the EIS for Glades, and the smaller project, if revisited, could still end up on the same permitting track, Crosby said.
A spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal said the in-depth study isn’t necessary. As Georgia’s 9th District U.S. House representative, he held several meetings with state, local and corps officials on the reservoir proposal, Brian Robinson said.
Deal was promised the reservoir wouldn’t have to meet the more stringent requirements of the study, Robinson said.
“The governor is concerned with this additional requirement because he had been informed, when in Congress, that this would not be needed,” Robinson, said in an email. “Gov. Deal is committed to securing holding capacity for Georgia’s future water needs. He certainly doesn’t want to see new obstacles thrown in front of these much-needed projects after we’ve crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’ of regulations.”
Water need a sticking point
Still, yet another obstacle may be on the horizon.
While county officials try to meet federal permitting requirements, Georgia may get permanent rights to the water in Lake Lanier.
A 2009 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson claimed Georgia had been withdrawing water from Lake Lanier illegally for years.
When the decision threatened to all but cut off Georgia’s access to the lake for drinking water, Hall County made plans to build Glades Reservoir to live without that source. County officials revised their proposal from a facility that could provide 6.4 million gallons of water per day to one that could provide up to 80 million gallons.
The state Environmental Protection Division, which must approve the project with a water withdrawal permit, sent a letter recognizing the need for the water.
But the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Magnuson’s decision June 28, stating that Congress always intended for the lake to be used for drinking water.
The appeals court decision charges the corps to spend the next year determining the organization’s authority under the Rivers and Harbors Act and the Water Supply Act. It also mandates that the corps make final decisions on how much water should be stored in Lake Lanier.
A state water withdrawal permit for Glades hinges on the state’s determination of a need for the reservoir based on estimates of future growth and current water supplies.
If Georgia regains its permanent access to Lake Lanier’s water, an 80 million gallon per day reservoir may no longer seem like a priority.
But Baughman says it’s likely that the state will still determine that Georgia needs additional water storage in the upper Chattahoochee River basin.
Nothing is certain, however.
“There’s so much of this that’s still up in the air,” Baughman said.