Several dozen people set out on a hike through Dawson Forest over the weekend for a firsthand look at the site of a proposed 2,000-acre reservoir.
Two environmental groups organized the journey, which they hoped would detail how the Shoal Creek Reservoir could affect a fish species native to the Etowah River.
The reservoir is one of two Etowah Water and Sewer Authority-initiated projects in Dawson County that would pull water from the Etowah.
Located on property owned by the city of Atlanta, the Shoal Creek project could provide as much as 100 million gallons of water per day that could be sold to Atlanta and other nearby cities and counties.
That’s a problem, according to Joe Cook of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, a Rome-based environmental organization.
“All that water will be taken out of the Etowah and never returned,” he told the group as it stopped to examine a stretch of the river.
“There will be 100 million gallons a day that won’t be going downstream to fill up Lake Allatoona [northwest of Atlanta], and would not be available to anybody downstream.”
Cook noted there are many questions “about whether the Etowah could sustain building this reservoir.”
A ‘complex’ issue
Cook had the attention of club members and others during Saturday’s hike, which he led.
Also in attendance Saturday were representatives from another environmental organization, the Sierra Club.
The trek drew Darrell Grizzle, an outdoor enthusiast from Marietta, who wanted “to learn more about this issue.”
“I know it’s pretty complex,” he said. “It’s not really a black and white, wrong and right kind of matter.”
But the matter is timely, in light of a July 2009 decision by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson.
Magnuson ruled that said Atlanta illegally tapped Lake Lanier, which is fed by the Chattahoochee River, for drinking water.
He gave the region three years to ink a water-sharing deal with Alabama and Florida, which also depend on the river.
The Etowah Water and Sewer Authority’s plans for a public-private partnership to form Shoal Creek Reservoir could be at least one solution for the region, said General Manager Brooke Anderson.
Anderson said a bill recently passed by state lawmakers “allows for much local control” with respect to partnerships.
On March 31, they approved Senate Bill 122, which spells out rules for public-private partnerships to build and operate reservoirs.
“We think that’s a good bill that will help a lot of large water projects move forward,” said Anderson of the measure, which awaits the governor’s signature.
Anderson explained that the bill “clears up” an issue on long-term contracts between municipalities and private entities.
“The problem is that a current commission or city council can’t bind the future commission or city council, and that bill kind of eliminates that restriction,” Anderson said.
“It allows longer contracts for water supply, so that counties can move forward with these projects.”
The authority’s Shoal Creek project isn’t the only proposed reservoir that could be built through a public-private partnership.
Georgia Reservoir Co. is considering a reservoir at Calhoun Creek, between Dawson and Lumpkin counties, that would pump water from the Etowah to meet Forsyth County’s future needs.
Scott Cole, an attorney for Georgia Reservoir Co., said the business is seeking a public sponsor for the project, ideally Forsyth County government.
“We think Forsyth County is the most likely entity to participate in the project, and we’d like Forsyth County to hear what we’ve done so far.”
Cole said the business plans to formally meet with Forsyth officials in the coming weeks.
“There’s been investigations by Georgia Reservoir Co. into the suitability of the site, and we’re preparing to present that to [Forsyth County],” Cole said.
Anderson said he was somewhat wary of the project.
“My initial concern is that it’s being privately driven, not publicly driven,” Anderson said.
“In terms of its impact on Russell Creek and Shoal Creek reservoirs ... [the planned Calhoun Creek project] is the fifth reservoir being discussed or built on that stretch of river. That’s a reasonably small watershed.”
The Russell Creek Reservoir is another project proposed by Etowah Water and Sewer Authority.
The Russell Creek project, which could pump 17.5 million gallons per day from the Etowah during periods of heavy rain, is a possible solution for Dawson County’s projected water needs, Anderson said.
The authority currently draws 5.5 million gallons per day from the river, which is the maximum amount allowed without a reservoir.
The Russell Creek project is further along than Shoal Creek, with all land acquired and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permitting nearly in place.
But Cook, with the Coosa River Basin Initiative, said there’s only so many reservoirs that can pump from the Etowah.
“[The proposed Calhoun Creek project] could seriously impact Russell and Shoal Creek reservoirs,” Cook said. “If they’re going to pump water out of the Etowah to fill Calhoun, then how much will be left to fill Russell Creek?
“You can’t build that many reservoirs and still maintain flows downstream.”
The Etowah Darter
Cook and others waded into the Etowah on Saturday with a net to catch fish specimens.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee Eric Prowell placed the specimens in a small plastic tank, so that the hikers could take a look at the Etowah Darter and other aquatic creatures.
“It’s kind of like the shallow areas are the cities of the stream,” he said of the ecosystem. “The deep pools are the rural areas of the stream. There’s a range of wildlife that can thrive in each.”
He explained that Etowah Darters thrive in shallow and swift, oxygen-rich waters.
Tricia Winter of Cleveland watched the fish swim in the plastic tank.
“You don’t always think about what man can do to nature,” Winter said. “We should take everything into account before we go any further with this.”