By Sarah Wibell
Apalachee River residents voiced concerns to Morgan County Board of Commissioners Tuesday, March 20, over a proposed water intake pump. Information about the project to divert water to the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir was found wanting by both river residents and commissioners.
The location of the intake pump for the reservoir that services Walton County, Oconee County, and the City of Winder including Barrow County, planned since 2004, was changed in a February application made by the Walton County Water and Sewerage Commission to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The new location of the proposed pump, moved from Oconee County to a property on the Morgan County side of the river, was brought to the commissioners’ attention by worried residents.
Wayne Parks, representing the Riverwalk Homeowners’ Association, stated, “We know that Morgan County was not notified of this pumping station. The Georgia Water Council, which is in charge of managing Georgia rivers, was never notified. The Army Corps of Engineers was led to believe that Morgan County and the citizens had no problem with the project. We suspect that there are probably other state and federal agencies that should have been notified that have not been.”
Residents claim answers to various questions are essential before moving forward. Damage to the ecosystem as well as residents’ welfare were outlined, including a fear that the 200-acre property currently under a 90-day contract might be used for other purposes like a sewage treatment facility.
Vicki Soutar, Upper Oconee Watershed Network representative, stated, “The data from the original permit and application was from 2004. So, 14 years ago some of these decisions were made. However, projections about population growth, as well as water demand, which goes hand-in-hand, are old data. It needs to be readdressed.”
Commissioner Ben Riden commented that by simply changing the proposed location of the pump downstream, “I’d think they’d have to re-evaluate because even the pooling is different.”
Parks pointed out that the Apalachee River is an already tapped source. “I think that Morgan County gets all their water from Madison Public Works. The sources for that water come from two places, if I’m correct: the Apalachee River and below the Hard Labor Creek dam.” Concerns over tapping the river further, especially in drought conditions, were shared by many residents in the room.
Morgan and Oconee County residents are not alone in their concern. As the fifth proposed location for the intake site, Newton County residents allegedly rejected an attempt to put the pump on their section of the Alcovy River, according to Parks and David Jackson, another river resident. Statistics from the United States Geodetic Survey indicating that the Alcovy is a greater source of water than the Apalachee River raise questions.
Parks shared a portion of the study: “The average flow in the Alcovy is 235 cubic feet per second on a year-round average (…) The same average flow for the same period of time for the Apalachee is 172 cubic feet per second.”
Parks said environmental studies on the proposed intake site have been difficult to attain. “We are in contact with the United States Environmental Protection Agency looking specifically at the National Environmental Policy Act,” he said. “The mandate of this act is to promote and create conditions under which man and nature can exist in harmony. We’ve advised this agency that we’ve searched from 2004 to 2018 and cannot find any environmental impact study for either the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir or for withdrawal of water from the Apalachee. We can’t find it. We asked Oconee County commissioners when we were in a meeting the other week. They said they thought there was one, but they couldn’t tell us where it was.”
The Environmental Protection Division (EPD) was contacted by Morgan County officials who inquired about water withdrawal rates. County Manager Adam Mestres noted, “As of the date of that phone call, they didn’t have any of that information.”
Riverwalk resident Jack Rice, who also spoke with that agency, added, “According to Georgia EPD, there’s been no application, absolutely nothing at all, to this site.”
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was reported by Parks to have told him in 2013 that “this intake wouldn’t take place for 15 to 20 years.”
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contact Elisha A. Brannon and Mestres discussed the proposed intake system for nearly an hour over the phone. Brannon reportedly said that with the 50 letters and 20 phone calls received from residents expressing their concerns, “a public hearing is most certainly in the works,” Mestres related. “She assured me that we are in the beginning stages of what is the request for an intake site. We have a number of questions about water control, rates and limits. None of that was addressed in the notice, and they don’t have any of that information yet. All they have is what was addressed in the application.”
Mestres stated that in a recent conversation with Walton County Commissioner Kevin Little and Oconee County Commissioner John Daniell, “I told them I thought there was a misstep in communications. They apologized for that, and they wanted to make sure that everyone who could be involved in the process was involved.”
Although the board has not taken an official position on the proposed intake site, the commissioners and the City of Madison intend to request a public hearing by the U.S. Corps of Engineers. The commissioners stated that they will also urge Walton County, the applicant, to host a public meeting.
Commissioners Andy Ainslie and Ben Riden conveyed that they heard the concerns voiced and encouraged a continued demand for answers.
Rice’s final statement of the meeting elicited applause among river residents: “Our intention is to resist any outlet for any reason by anybody on the Apalachee, and we are building that coalition between Oconee and what we are doing now with Morgan County. We are going to build that coalition larger (…) we can go through that bureaucracy and we will, and we’re going to continue to do that long after this thing is long gone and they’ve left Morgan County. The Apalachee is what we are trying to protect, and we think you want to protect it, too. We just want it on public record so everybody knows that – speaking for myself but I think a lot of people in the room feel the same way – I’m not in the mood for compromise on touching my river.”