COVINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency has recommended denial of a permit for the Bear Creek Reservoir and has sent two letters to the Army Corps of Engineers raising concerns about the project's impact and incomplete information in the county's permit application.
The letters cover much of the same ground, questioning population projections and water needs estimates provided by Newton County, asking for more study on alternative water sources and pointing out the significant impacts of the project.
According to the letters, the Bear Creek project "will have the largest extent of stream impacts of any water supply reservoir ever proposed for permitting by the Savannah District."
The project will impact 136 acres of wetlands and 24 miles of streams.
The EPA says the project will have "substantial and unacceptable impacts on aquatic resources of national importance."
The county's 2000 permit application, which was eventually withdrawn, estimated a population of 257,510 by 2045. The application predicts a population of 361,517 by 2050, but does not explain the increase in the estimate, according to EPA.
"To determine the projected water needs of the county and consider a range of alternatives that meet the project purpose, the projected population growth for the service area requires substantiation," the EPA's letter states.
The EPA also states that the county has not fully evaluated all alternatives to meet future water supply needs and therefore has not demonstrated that the proposal is the "least environmentally damaging practicable alternative" as required by federal law.
A potential alternative could be increasing the yield of the county's existing reservoir, Cornish Creek, also known as Lake Varner. The EPA states that it's not clear why the yield of Lake Varner could not be increased with additional withdrawals from the Alcovy River.
Walton County owns 25 percent of the yield from Lake Varner, but may not require that yield in the future because it has been permitted to build its own reservoir at Hard Labor Creek, according to the EPA.
The EPA also recommends looking at Lake Jackson for future water supply needs.
The application also does not examine all potential impacts of the project, and the mitigation plan for wetland and stream impacts "is fragmented, lacks detail, lacks baseline data and consists primarily of wetland and stream preservation that is likely to result in a net loss of wetland and stream functions," according to the EPA.
The first letter, dated March 6 and signed by James D. Giattina, director of the EPA's Water Management Division, recommends denial of the permit. The second letter, dated April 3, was signed by regional administrator J.I. Palmer Jr. and states that the "project is not approvable at this time."
"We don't do that very often," said Bob Lord, with the EPA's Wetlands Division Program, of sending letters out from the regional administrative level. "That means we're very serious about the comments."
Scott Cole, a lawyer with the County Attorney's Office, said it's not unusual for the EPA to recommend denial of a large reservoir project.
"At this stage in the permitting process, EPA has to raise all of its concerns, all of the issues about the project in order to preserve its seat at the table to continue to be a player in negotiating the final permit conditions," Cole said.
Jason O'Kane, a project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers, said the EPA's letter indicates a request for a dispute resolution process.
"Their comments hold a lot of weight," O'Kane said. "We'll probably have an issue resolution meeting between us and the applicant and EPA to discuss the comments in the letter."
O'Kane said the corps has submitted all comments received during the public comment period to the county for a response. The corps gives a 30-day deadline for the county to address the issues, but the county is not required to meet the deadline and has an indefinite amount of time to respond, he said.
Newton County has requested an extension to that response time, he said.
"We're taking all the comments, and there were numerous issues raised, and they all merit a response," Cole said. "We're trying to accumulate those and then turn that over to the corps. The corps and EPA will evaluate the response to make sure all of EPA's issues are addressed.
"The EPA comments, while they appear very negative, that is essentially par for the course for comments by EPA at this stage of any water supply reservoir project," he added. "Only one water supply reservoir was not recommended for denial at this stage of the game."
O'Kane said the corps received several letters from citizens opposed to the project, adding that he had read all the complaints and sent them on to the county to address.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at email@example.com.