Based on future population estimates, the amount of water that the Etowah Water and Sewer Authority can pull from the Etowah River will cap out within the next 10 to 12 years.
The authority, the county’s only water provider, currently has a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to draw water from the Etowah River, but the amount that is permitted will not be enough to sustain growth or see the county through a drought. The authority is planning to construct a bigger dam on Russell Creek, a tributary to the Etowah River, in order to create a more permanent water supply.
According to Etowah Water and Sewer Authority General Manager Brooke Anderson, who presented an update on the reservoir project at a recent Dawson County Chamber of Commerce luncheon, the authority is now working to select a design engineer for Russell Creek Reservoir, which will be capable of producing 17.3 million gallons per day, compared to the authority’s current usage of 5.5 million gallons a day.
The authority is building the dam and reservoir based on a growth projection that goes out to the year 2057, which estimates the Dawson County population at 126,000.
The current population rests around 24,000.
“This reservoir will allow a lot of room for growth. The authority is a service provider,” Anderson said. “Whatever this county wants to be when it grows up, it needs to have the water resources available to be whatever that is, that is not our decision. Our decision is to make sure the resources are there to support the businesses and the county.”
In July of last year, the authority received a 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the reservoir. The permit is required when the corps controls a body of water, such as they do with the Etowah River, and took the authority 13 years to obtain.
In November, the board of directors for the authority started the process of searching for a firm to design the earthen dam that will be necessary to create and maintain the reservoir. The authority has received proposals from four firms and hopes to be taking a recommendation to the board in the near future, Anderson said.
The process will include taking an existing 11-acre lake off Etowah River Road and converting it to a 137-acre reservoir.
“Back in the 50s and 60s, the Soil Conservation Service built hundreds upon hundreds of watershed protection lakes that were built for flood control and sediment storage, primarily to protect farmland,” Anderson said.
Head Lake is one of them, and it is located between Seed Tick and New Bethel Church roads. In order to expand the lake, it will have to be drained and the old dam taken out before the new one can be built.
No homes will have to be moved, and trees located on the full pool will be timbered in the winter of 2019. Construction will start in 2020, and will be completed by 2023. Based on the schedule for filling the reservoir, it will be completely full in 2024.
The new dam will be 700 feet wide, 700 feet long and 110 feet tall, making the Russell Creek Reservoir a big project compared to other dams in the country.
“A 100 foot dam is a threshold in the industry,” Anderson said. “Of all the hundreds of dams in Georgia, less than one percent are 100 feet or taller. In the U.S., there are over 90,000 dams, and less than five percent are 100 feet or taller. So this is a big dam and a big deal for Dawson County.”
Anderson said the dam is going to be built to extraordinary lengths, and be able to withstand a 3,000 year storm.
“This dam will be designed to hold and carry what’s called Probable Maximum Precipitation. It’s the maximum amount of water that the atmosphere can hold in a given moment,” he said. “If it were to happen, you would have trouble breathing because the air would be completely saturated. If it happens, find your ark.”
In the meantime, the reservoir is expected to last the county 50 years, at a cool price tag of $40 million for design, construction and management of the project.
The authority had invested $10 million in the project so far, after being issued a $10 million loan from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority in 2014. Anderson hopes that GEFA can grant the authority an additional loan of $20 million.
Though both are technically reservoirs, the operation and uses of Russell Creek Reservoir will be very different from Lake Lanier.
The corps of engineers will not control the level of the lake, so the authority plans to keep it full all the time. Gas powered boats will not be allowed on the reservoir, nor will swimming. Fishing in kayaks or canoes will be allowed with proper permits.
The land around the reservoir is private property, so engaging the public in a controlled manner will be a challenge, Anderson said.
“The state regulates a lot, we’re going to have to regulate it more,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be a $40 million public asset virtually in the middle of the county, so we have to figure that out over the next few years. We make water, we clean up wastewater pretty well, we don’t do parks so well.
“At the end of the day, it is a water supply lake, and the quality of the water directly impacts our ability to treat it and get it to our customers. That’s $40 million and we’re not really enamored about messing it up.”