Bear Creek stalled by delays

COVINGTON - A Joint Public Notice was issued for Bear Creek Reservoir on Jan. 9, another step in the long process toward obtaining a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

It was the second time a JPN has been issued for the project. The first was in July 2000, and in the seven and a half years since, the county has faced one delay after another in its endeavors to move forward with the reservoir, intended to serve Newton County's water needs through the year 2050.

A JPN is a 30-day open comment period when the corps seeks input from all adjoining neighbors, environmental groups and other agencies on the potential impact of the reservoir.

In the midst of the first comment period in summer 2000, the corps moved offices from Atlanta to Morrow and didn't leave forwarding information, said Scott Cole, a lawyer with the County Attorney's Office.

"There was a concern that people who wanted to comment were not given information timely enough from the corps," Cole said. "The corps asked if we would voluntarily withdraw the application and voluntarily resubmit it."

The county withdrew the application. About that same time, two applications for water supply projects used Paulding County's population growth as justification for need, bringing to light a problem with the approval process.

"Where federal agencies had been deferring to the state on issues of need for additional water supply was concerned, the state was rubber stamping projects," Cole said.

The corps suspended acceptance of all applications for about two years while developing a procedure to establish need.

"As soon as they finalized that procedure, we started trying to get the process going again," Cole said.

But by then, the results of the 2000 Census were available, and the county had to reconfigure population projections, which caused a delay of about one year, he said.

Then, the Jasper County Board of Commissioners approached the county about participating in the reservoir. It took another 18 months to develop an intergovernmental agreement outlining who would operate the reservoir and how funding would be split. The state certified the need for the project based on Jasper County's participation, and when that deal fell through, a new certification had to be obtained, Cole said.

By that time, the corps had developed a new model to simulate operations of the reservoir to make sure there would be no impact on Lake Jackson.

"They asked us to run the new model, but nobody had run it before, so we had to find somebody that could and would do that," Cole said.

The county has spent the last nine months getting the necessary documents in place to submit an application. The application was finally approved in November.

Following the closing of public comment in February, it will take another 12 to 18 months to get a permit for the reservoir, Cole said.

He would not estimate a start date for construction.

He said the chances of obtaining a permit are favorable, given that "a lot of attention is being paid to water supply and future water needs ... We've seen the federal agencies and state interested in getting water supply projects done."

The reservoir will be located in southeast Newton and will overtake most of the more than 2,000 acres purchased by the county in 1996 along with Gaither Plantation, though the historic Gaither home, barn, log cabin and Harris Springs Primitive Baptist Church will remain.

The reservoir will require installation of 6,000 feet of force main pipeline to augment reservoir storage by pumping water to the Alcovy River, according to the corps.

The dam will be 1,450 feet long, 62 feet high and 350 feet wide at the base.

The late Davis Morgan, a former county commission chairman, initiated the purchase of Gaither with the idea of the reservoir in mind.

When asked the initial timeline for construction of the reservoir, Cole said only that Morgan had hoped "it would be done a lot sooner."

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@ newtoncitizen.com.