County seeks drought protection for Alcovy River

COVINGTON - As a historic drought sucks reservoirs, lakes and streams dry across the state, officials are focusing their attention on protecting water supply and quality for the future.

In Newton County, it's no different, and the wheels of one local water quality project that has been in the works for two years are slowly beginning to turn.

The county is putting special emphasis on protecting the Alcovy River, the drinking water source that now supplies the Cornish Creek Reservoir and will one day supplement the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir.

To protect water quality in the river, the county's goal is to establish an undisturbed buffer ranging from 150 to 300 feet along the banks of the Alcovy.

The protected area would stretch 14 miles, from East End Road to the northernmost county line.

The county has received a $300,000 federal grant for the project, to be augmented by $200,000 in local matching funds or in-kind services.

The grant was awarded in 2006 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Federal Water Pollution Act and administered through the Georgia Environmental Protection Division of the Department of Natural Resources.

With the grant set to expire in 2009, the county is now ready to move forward with acquiring property for the project.

The county will be asking landowners along the river to make a simple fee donation or place their property in a conservation easement, said Cheryl Delk, special projects coordinator for the county.

A fee simple donation is the transfer of a property by deeding it directly to a land trust or government agency without accepting any money for the property.

A conservation easement is a legally binding covenant between current and future property owners and an organization such as a conservancy to preserve natural areas by restricting certain uses.

Tax benefits may be available to donors in both cases.

"It would still be their property, it would just be protected in perpetuity," Delk said.

Karl Kelley, director of the county's water resources department, said the proposed buffer will not only protect water quality, but also reduce the cost of water production.

Vegetation in the buffer acts as natural filtration for surface runoff, which supplies the majority of drinking water in the county, except for residents who have wells, he said.

"(Pollutants) don't wind up in the stream - a good buffer will reduce our cost of producing drinking water," he said.

Most buffers in the county are 25 to 35 feet, Kelley said, but can be as much as 125 feet in sensitive watersheds.

Buffers prevent erosion and provide protected habitats for wildlife such as turtles, raccoons and possums.

Buffers also provide a protective barrier to pollutants that can destroy "critters" known as benthic invertebrates that inhabit streams, Kelley said. A stream's health is measured by the health of these creatures.

"Any type of buffer provides numerous benefits not only to the stream itself but to wildlife habitats," he said.

The Georgia Wildlife Federation will undertake a survey of the Alcovy River later this year to identify erosion and pollution problems, assisted by students at Oxford College, said Robert Phillips, assistant water issues coordinator for the Georgia Wildlife Federation.

"We hope to use (the survey data) in the future to come back and make corrections and improve quality," Phillips said.

The federation is also planning a family day at Lake Varner "to introduce the community to the recreational aspect of good, clean water and the importance of a riparian buffer," he said.

Those who want more information on riparian buffers can tune in to local cable show Catch 22 during the month of April, where Kelley and County Arborist Debbie Bell will be interviewed on the subject.

Beginning April 1, the show will air six times daily through April 30 on Channel 22.

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