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County, foes debate merits of South River
Consultant says it shouldn't be used as a water source

COVINGTON - Opponents of the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir have accused Newton County officials of failing to fully study other alternatives, especially a proposal by Thomas Bros. Hydro Inc. to pull water directly out of the South River.

But the County Attorney's Office released a document Wednesday supporting its stance that the river is not a viable water source.

According to an e-mail sent to County Attorney Tommy Craig by David Word, the retired assistant director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division now acting as a private consultant for the county, the South River is a poor option due to unreliable water flows and potential contamination.

Word said that the EPD would allow withdrawal from the South River without a reservoir because discharges into the river by DeKalb County are interbasin transfers.

DeKalb withdraws water from the Chattahoochee River basin and discharges treated wastewater into the Ocmulgee River basin.

But with the ongoing conflicts over interbasin transfers, Word predicted that the flow would eventually be returned to the Chattahoochee.

"Given all the attention to (interbasin transfers) and EPD's posture against them as exhibited in the draft State Water Plan, EPD will never issue a water withdrawal permit based on these discharges remaining," Word said. "EPD will never issue a letter saying that these (interbasin transfers) should remain in order to support a new water withdrawal from the South River. This is a dead issue."

Word said he consulted with EPD officials who "do not believe that the South River is a viable water source and did not think that the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) would insist upon this source in lieu of a reservoir."

Quality of the river water is also impacted by upstream development and combined sewer overflows, Word said.

Dated Dec. 7, 2007, the e-mail was released to the media after reservoir opponent Sam M. Hay III made an Open Records request for documents supporting the use of Bear Creek rather than the South River for drinking water production.

On Dec. 8, former EPD director Harold Reheis, also acting as a consultant for the county, sent an e-mail stating that he agreed with Word's conclusions.

Both e-mails were sent in response to a request by Craig to look into the South River project a second time.

"My faith remains unshaken that we are pursuing the right alternative," Craig said Wednesday.

South River was not included in the county's short list of alternative sites because of concerns about reliability of flow and quality, he said.

"The whole purpose of the project is to expand the reliable supplies (of water). If you haven't done that, all your efforts are wasted," he said.

Craig said another concern with the South River is contamination from medications and drugs.

Though wastewater is treated before it is discharged into reservoirs, rivers or lakes and is usually cleansed again at drinking water treatment plants before being piped to consumers, most treatments do not remove all drug residue.

To do that, Craig said a process known as reverse osmosis is required. That process would make producing water very expensive, he said.

But Hoke Thomas, owner of Thomas Bros. Hydro Inc., said the same contaminants exist in the Alcovy River, where water will be pumped to supplement Bear Creek, and in fact, in every water supply.

Thomas disputes a claim by Craig and Word that the EPD will require a letter from DeKalb County guaranteeing continuous discharge of a certain quantity of water before it will issue a permit.

The Thomas Bros. project would entail withdrawal of 30 million gallons of water per day from the South River at Snapping Shoals, 27 miles down river from DeKalb County's wastewater discharge, he said, estimating the project would cost $100 million. Craig said at the public meeting that he did not have a cost estimate for Bear Creek.

Thomas said the project would be a public/private venture, financed privately and paid for by consumers.

Unlike Bear Creek, no county-backed bonds would have to be issued, no wetlands would be impacted and no property condemned, he said.

"There is no other place to my knowledge in Georgia that has all these options," he said. "I'm not saying don't build Bear Creek. I'm just saying Snapping Shoals is much better for taxpayers."

Jasper County has already agreed to use South River as a water source if the project is permitted, according to Jasper County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jack Bernard.

Public comment on the Bear Creek Reservoir expires March 14. Craig estimates it will take another 12 to 18 months before the Army Corps of Engineers issues a permit.

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