Water chairman to ask Barrow for supply study
Without significant rain, reservoir can supply good water until Dec. 28

WINDER - With only enough good water in Jackson County's Bear Creek Reservoir to last until Dec. 28, Barrow County's Water Authority chairman will ask the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday to fund a water supply study.

Stan Coley will ask for $80,000 from the county's water fund to pay a consultant to analyze Barrow County's existing needs and identify future supply sources. The study should take six to nine months to complete and will include all the cities in Barrow County, said Terry Darragh, public works department director.

Barrow, Clarke, Jackson and Oconee counties rely on the Bear Creek Reservoir for water. When it began operation in 2002, it was expected to serve the four counties effectively for the next 40 years.

But the region is growing faster than expected and, five years later, Bear Creek Reservoir is running out of water.

In September, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division gave the Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority a 45-day emergency waiver to draw extra water from the Middle Oconee River. Without that critical measure, the reservoir was expected to go dry before Thanksgiving.

As it is, good drinking water will be gone before New Year's Eve.

The 500-acre pond holds 4.9 billion gallons of water at full pool. Friday, it was down 14 feet from full pool with 2.7 billion gallons left and the region using 20 million gallons per day.

"We are forecasting that it will be down to the lower 25 percent by Dec. 28," Williams said. "While the reservoir won't be empty, the remaining water will be hard to treat because the iron and manganese concentrations will be high. There'll be no health issue, but the water will taste and smell bad. The water situation is a major concern."

Officials are looking at connecting with other counties to find solutions and possibly share water sources, Darragh said.

To store more of the water that falls during rainy seasons is a solution, but it's an expensive one because undeveloped, affordable acreage is getting scarce in the four-county area.

The state's decade-long permitting process hampers water conservation efforts and could slow economic growth, said Bob Beck, Winder's city manager.

"The state can help by streamlining the permitting process for new water sources," Beck said. "Bear Creek took 10 to 12 years to get permitted. If North Georgia doesn't get water storage and availability, it will stymie our growth."

EPD officials will present a comprehensive state water-conservation plan to the General Assembly in January, said Kevin Chambers, spokesman for the agency.

"It will give us a framework to better manage water resources across the state and includes plans for improved storage, like reservoirs," Chambers said. "Water conservation is critical, and I think this drought is teaching us a hard lesson about the need to be good stewards."