Guest editorial - Is Bear Creek a blessing or a curse?

I am a county commissioner in Jasper County, which contains Jackson Lake (along with Newton and Butts). In fact, most of our population lives around the lake area.

We have no local source of water other than wells, but we do not need a new reservoir (Bear Creek or otherwise). We need permission by the state to pull water out of the Ocmulgee River, as Butts County does now. (By the way, the Butts Water Authority refuses to sell us water, saying that they need it for themselves. I would hope that the proposed statewide plan addresses this problem for us.) Furthermore, we do not need reservoirs for some of the other counties in Georgia where it is being proposed, such as Newton County's Bear Creek, which will have a direct negative effect on our county's environment (note the green algae issue caused by the Tussahaw reservoir, for example) and our economy (less tourism and lower lake home values).

Long-term, we need strong progressive state legislation to help counties like Newton control unwanted residential growth, which is putting these strains on all our communities. What we have now is exactly the opposite - open and blind encouragement of residential growth at any cost by most state politicians (including the governor). This situation benefits developers and virtually no one else (as has been shown in numerous studies done by Dr. Jeff Dorfman at UGA).

A basic state policy change, moving to a more realistic stance affirming only controlled positive growth, is our best protection against water shortages. A frequently quoted (by developers at least) old saying goes that you cannot stop progress. But, Georgia's current policy position is not progress; it is exploitation of our citizens and the environment in which we all live for the benefit of special interests.

On a closely related subject - recycled water - we all are grateful for the standard set by Fulton County's Cauley Creek Water Reclamation Facility (and the upcoming John's Creek Environmental Campus) and by Clayton County. Well-founded drought fears are rampant in many metro area counties, some of which have made tentative plans to create additional raw water reservoirs by drawing on small streams - streams that are currently "dried up" as a result of the drought.

If we have the political courage to do it, recycling water can also pay off for other metro counties including Newton (and DeKalb, Gwinnett, Rockdale and rural Jasper County, among others). Specifically, recycling Lake Lanier water can keep residents of these counties well supplied while much of North Georgia worries about running dry. How?

As much as 60 million gallons a day (mgd) of water flows, unused by any county or city, down the South River from Lake Lanier to the Atlantic Ocean. Downstream, 27 miles from the point of discharge, is Snapping Shoals in Newton and Henry counties. This flow distance greatly reduces the fecal coli form bacteria and enhances the dissolved oxygen content of the water, nature's way of purifying it without having to construct costly man-made ponds, like in Clayton County. A 30 mgd raw water municipal (public/private) withdrawal permit for Snapping Shoals has been filed with the Georgia EPD and the Corps by Thomas Brothers Hydro Inc.

The Snapping Shoals site is located very close to Newton (and also Henry, Rockdale and DeKalb County) water lines, has an existing 90,000,000-gallon reservoir and two sources of raw water: Snapping Shoals Creek and the South River. Only a raw water pump station is needed - and there are no wetlands to mitigate and no property to condemn or purchase.

The proposed 30 mgd filter plant will be a public/private venture, financed and constructed by an as yet to be identified company for Jasper and the surrounding counties, including Newton if it chooses to participate. Completion of the Snapping Shoals raw water withdrawal and filtration plant will save the taxpayers more than $500,000,000 in long-term debts (Thomas Brothers estimate) that would be needed to construct very expensive multiple raw water reservoirs and will assure the cleanest, purest supply of inexpensive potable water. It is a win-win situation for both environmentalists and water consuming taxpayers.

The Jasper County Board of Commissioners is on record as supporting this South River project, but other counties like Newton County will need to lend their support for it to be financially feasible. Although recycled water is a proven technology being used in places like Orange County, Calif., (one of the most heavily populated counties on the West Coast), Newton County has decided to dismiss this alternative without thoroughly examining costs and benefits.

Unfortunately for some developers and their politically connected consultants and attorneys, without more reservoir construction, there will not be an opportunity for these folks to make lots of money by developing more "lake front lots" at public expense. Therefore, they will be opposing the Snapping Shoals project and are putting their extensive resources behind reservoir development, as is the case with Bear Creek. Their attitude is that it is inevitable and should be approved without extensive review of economic and environmental factors. This view is just plain wrong as a matter of public policy.

The city engineer from Greensboro recently told Thomas Brothers that the Snapping Shoals site is the best raw water withdrawal site in the entire state of Georgia. He is right!

The friendly taxpayer economics of this project far outweigh any withdrawal, filtration and distribution site within the entire state of Georgia, including Bear Creek. Lets hope the Corps, Newton County and state officials see it that way and actively support this alternative, despite the opposition of the moneyed interests as exemplified in the Bear Creek application.

Jack Bernard is the District 3 representative on the Jasper County Board of Commissioners. He may be contacted at 706-468-5101 or bernard_jack@hotmail.com.