Studies completed by a state commission several years ago determined that Dawson County could add 100,000 residents by 2050.
For Etowah Water and Sewer Authority, the only local entity that can pull water from the Etowah River, that presented a challenge.
It meant the county would one day need more water than the authority could legally draw from the river — unless other means were found.
Currently, the authority is permitted to take 5.5 million gallons of water per day from the Etowah, which flows through Dawson and neighboring counties.
The expansion of a small, pre-existing reservoir in eastern Dawson surfaced as the best solution, according to Brooke Anderson, the authority’s general manager.
It’s a project the authority has been working on for more than six years.
Last week, the authority marked a milestone in its ongoing plans for the Russell Creek Reservoir.
Officials closed on the final piece of property needed to expand the 12-acre body of water to a 138-acre reservoir designed to meet the county’s projected needs.
The population study, which was conducted in 2005 by the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission, determined that by 2050 Dawson County would need 17.2 million gallons of water per day.
If allowed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Russell Creek Reservoir could supplement what the authority currently pulls from the river.
Anderson said the authority is close to obtaining the permit to move forward.
“All indications are very good that we will have this permit by the end of this calendar year,” Anderson said.
According to the corps’ Web site, a 404 permit is needed “for certain activities conducted in wetlands or other U.S. waters.”
The only other loose end remaining, Anderson said, is that the authority must make a revised plan to reduce the reservoir’s potential impact on nearby wetlands and streams.
“We are nearing the end of our revised mitigation plan,” Anderson said. “We’ve been working diligently for the past two years, and we hope to have that resolved this fall.”
Once permitting is in place, the authority’s goal is to begin construction within five years.
“When we get the permit, we’re going to have to slow the project down, because in order to make this thing operational we’re looking at a cost of $30 million.”
Added Anderson: “In this economy, we just don’t have $30 million. We’re going to have to wait and let the economy come back to us.”
According to projections, the 5.5 million gallons per day which the authority can currently pull from the river will be sufficient for about 10 more years.
Beyond that date, the growing population of Dawson County may need more water, Anderson said.
Once construction begins, it would take about 24 months to build a dam and pump station for Russell Creek.
“If the economy and growth comes back quicker, certainly we’ll pull the trigger and move forward quicker,” Anderson said.
Expanding an existing reservoir
Located between Seed Tick and New Bethel Church roads, the 12-acre Russell Creek Reservoir was created in the 1960s by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, or NRCS, a federal agency.
According to its Web site, the agency works with landowners “through conservation planning and assistance to benefit the soil, water, air, plants and animals for productive lands and healthy ecosystems.”
According to activist Joe Cook, Russell Creek was one of several reservoirs created decades ago to keep farm fields in the area from flooding.
“Now, many of those farm fields are no longer being used, and we’ve got these reservoirs sitting around not serving an immediate purpose.”
Cook is the executive director of Coosa River Basin Initiative, a Rome-based environmental organization.
He has opposed several of the reservoirs being proposed, but has voiced support for the Russell Creek project.
“If we can find a way to utilize these existing reservoirs, we’ll have less impact on our rivers, and potentially we’ll spend less money than we would by building new reservoirs.”
But before Etowah Water and Sewer Authority could consider the Russell Creek project, it first had to prove to the corps that expanding a reservoir was the best available option.
Alternative water sources
Anderson said as the authority began a search for alternative water sources in 2005, it first weighed other methods of obtaining more water.
The authority conducted studies on conservation, water reclamation and groundwater collection.
It also went to the city of Gainesville and Forsyth and Cherokee counties to see how much water the municipalities could sell.
None of the alternatives could yield the amount of water needed to satisfy Dawson County’s projected needs.
“Our last alternative was a reservoir,” Anderson said.
The pre-existing NRCS reservoirs built decades ago seemed to be the most viable option.
“We knew if we were going to do anything with any of [the reservoirs], we’d be wise to go to the people responsible for them,” Anderson said.
After meeting with the authority, officials with NRCS decided to forge a partnership.
“They agreed to provide some funding for the permitting process as well as manpower and human resources,” Anderson said. “In addition, they brought us to the corps and fish and wildlife. They brought us to their table.”
After looking at two other existing reservoirs in the area, the authority determined that Russell Creek would be the best option based on economics and environmental concerns.
A pump-storage reservoir
In order to expand the Russell Creek reservoir, the authority will have to drain the lake and remove the existing dam.
Anderson said a new, taller dam will be built to impound 138 acres of water that will reach depths of up to 130 feet.
In addition, a pump station will be installed on the nearby Etowah River that connects to the Russell Creek Reservoir.
Anderson said the device will be designed to pump 15 million gallons of water per day out of the river through a 24-inch pipe, but only during periods of heavy rainfall.
He said the water flowing in through the creek itself won’t be enough to produce 11.7 million gallons per day.
“You have to have the [Etowah] river to get you there,” he said.
In addition, the dam will release water back into the Etowah River during periods of “drought or dry spells.”
Anderson said when the water is released back into the Etowah, the temperature and oxygen levels will be stabilized so that it doesn’t affect the river’s wildlife.
“If you’ve ever changed your goldfish bowl, and you don’t get that temperature exactly right, that goldfish will roll over on you,” Anderson explained.
When releasing back into the Etowah, the facility will use a specific mixture of the cold water at the bottom of the lake and the sun-warmed water near the top.
“That’s the way a pump-storage reservoir works,” Anderson said. “You pump it, you store it, you release it.”
Final piece of the puzzle
Last week’s land acquisition was the final step in a nearly two-year long process of obtaining property, access and easements to make way for the lake expansion.
Anderson said the state required that the authority obtain a 150-foot undisturbed buffer around the lake, which it has done.
He said the lake will be used strictly for retaining water, and no recreation will be permitted on or around the body of water.
Obtaining all of the properties for the project couldn’t have gone better, Anderson said.
“I’m not aware of any reservoir project where eminent domain was not required in order to secure the properties,” he said.
Eminent domain may be exercised by government to obtain private property for public use with payment or compensation.
“We did not have to use eminent domain to acquire these properties,” he said. “And that’s significant.”
With all of the property in place and permitting in the works, Anderson is optimistic about the future of Russell Creek Reservoir.
“We’ll continue to work closely with the corps and all agencies on this, and we hope to have some good news very soon.”