AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Another step for Glades Reservoir

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Friday released a draft of the Environmental Impact Statement for Glades Reservoir , the long-sought Hall County reservoir planned about 7 miles north of Lake Lanier.

Reaction to the plan will take a while to emerge. It is hundreds of pages long and filled with the kind of dense, technical information a project two decades in the making deserves.

Glades is a big deal for Georgia's water policy. Since 2011, Gov. Nathan Deal has tried to push along reservoir development as a way to secure the state's water reserves and Glades, arguably, is the most important piece of that plan. It's also has drawn the ire of conservationists who view building reservoirs as too expensive, environmentally damaging and a wasteful management of a limited resource. 

Release of the draft report is considered a significant step for Glades' supporters and detractors both. Whether Hall County, which would own the reservoir, has thoroughly vetted the project's potential damage to the environment, including its impact on endangered species, the health of the Chattahoochee River and quality of the water left over for those of us who live downstream, will be debated for weeks during a period of public comment.

Already, however, conservationists are raising alarms that the public comment period for the plan overlaps with one for another mammoth report. A month ago, the Corps' Mobile District published its draft of its water control manual for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, an overarching plan that has not been updated in more than half a century.

The draft manual includes Glades, although the proposed reservoir has yet to receive a permit from the Corps' office in Savannah. Jason Ulseth of the environmental group Chattahoochee Riverkeeper said the release of the two plans shows a lack of coordination between the two federal Corps districts.

While the Corps of Engineers's Mobile District controls water flow throughout the river basin that includes Lake Lanier and the proposed Glades Reservoir, it is the Savannah District that is evaluating Glades for the needed federal permits. Ulseth said it is not even clear whether the two districts are looking at the same version of Glades.

“The Glades concept has changed so many times over the years, it’s a moving target,” he said.

Ulseth said the release at the same time of two important, interlocking plans is bad for government transparency.

“It leaves the public very little time to read through these documents and provide meaningful comments," he said.

Hall County has been pushing the Glades project for years based on its belief that residential growth in the exurban county will soon require more water than Gainesville's water treatment plant current produces. In the report released Friday, Hall County claims it will need an additional 49.8 million gallons of drinking water a day by 2060 to slake the thirst of its projected 644,383 residents.

That figure is based on state projections released in 2013. But more recent figures show much slower growth for the region.

Projections released by the state budget office earlier this year predict Hall County’s 2050 population to be 318,828. Hall, which has a current population of less than 200,000, would have to double its population in those final 10 years to meet the Glades projections.

Hall consumers would have to become more wasteful as well. In August, the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District released estimates projecting that metro Atlantans will use 25 percent less water per capita by 2050 than had been previously estimated.

While Hall is planning to provide 120 gallons a day per person, the water planning district reported that, due to conservation efforts already in place, metro residents were using less than 110 gallons a day in 2010.

This is the problem with long-term projects like Glades: Projections have a tendency to shift, sometimes radically, while work on the project continues. The Glades backers admit as much in their draft report, noting they had reviewed the new figures "which are significantly lower than the previous forecast."

The new information will be absorbed, in some fashion, into the final report. According to the draft report, the Corps is considering how to account for fluctuations like this in the future, perhaps by issuing permits with "special conditions" that would allow some aspects of big water projects to move ahead while reserving permission on others until a need is demonstrated. That could allow for a local government to shorten the timeline between getting permission to build a reservoir and actually building it.

In the meantime, the public has 60 days to submit comments on the Glades plan. Information on how to comment can be found here .

A workshop and public meeting on the project is set for Dec. 8 at the Hall County Board of Commissioners from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.


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Joyner’s column, AJC Watchdog, investigates topics in your community and Georgia.