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Old Lakes Could Offer New Water Supply to Peach State

Mon March 10, 2008 - Southeast Edition

COMMERCE, Ga. (AP) North Georgia holds a little-known secret that could come in handy during the state’s historic drought: A band of aging, government-built lakes that are brimming with water.

The federal government built 357 dams starting in the 1950s to protect agricultural lands from floods and create jobs for mostly rural communities. Since many of the areas were sparsely populated, only 19 of the dams were equipped to provide drinking water.

But some Georgia lawmakers are rethinking the dams in the midst of a severe drought that has forced state officials to impose sweeping water restrictions.

Now there’s a Senate proposal to allow state dollars to be used to renovate and deepen these lakes so they can be tapped for drinking water. It’s rushing through the Capitol like a swift mountain stream, just as state budget writers are considering doling out $70 million on a splurge to build new reservoirs.

“This is the low hanging fruit,” said state Sen. Chip Pearson, the proposal’s sponsor. “The dams are already there. And they’re ready to be expanded.”

The Republicans’ plan would allow the state to pay as much as 20 percent of the cost of expanding the lakes, using some of the $70 million Gov. Sonny Perdue proposes using for reservoirs. It would also allow the state to pay for up to 40 percent of new reservoirs.

The existing, untapped reservoirs started popping up after a 1954 federal law allowed the state Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to build them. Most were constructed in the northern part of the state. Each was designed to prevent the flooding of agricultural land. Few were built to provide drinking water because local communities had to pick up half the tab, plus the cost of building treatment centers and water supply systems.

But as north Georgia’s population booms, thirsty towns and counties are looking to the dams as a new source of water.

The state NRCS is so far helping two communities convert their lakes for drinking water supply, and more requests will likely be on the way, said Jimmy Bramblett, an assistant state conservationist.

State lawmakers allocated $600,000 in the last budget for a study due in March that analyzed more than 160 other dams for possible water supply.

Updating the lakes won’t come cheap. The planning process takes years, and Bramblett pegs the average cost at around $100 million.

“Once communities see how much money it’s going to cost, there’s a bit of a sticker shock,” he said. “But it could be an answer for a few communities.”

Perhaps the most promising project is a $30 million plan to expand Russell Creek Reservoir in north Georgia’s Dawson County from an 11-acre (4.4 ha) earthen dam into a 137-acre (55.4 ha) lake. It could eventually pump out more than 11 million gallons (41.6 L) of water a day to supply a population of 150,000, said Brooke Anderson, general manager of the area’s water and sewer authority.

“They’re upgrading the lake that’s already there now, raising the height of the dam. But they’re not damming up a creek that’s never been dammed,” said David McKee, a Dawson County engineer. “It’s better than starting from scratch.”

Commerce’s roughly 5,200 residents know the benefit of such upgrades.

When government contractors finished the town’s NRCS lake in 1977, they made sure it could be used for drinking water. Commerce was able to sell some of its supply while other communities had to dust off water restrictions at the height of the drought to keep from running short.

Lawmakers have floated similar ideas before, but Georgia’s drought gave them new urgency. The severe conditions forced officials last year to ban outdoor watering through north Georgia and prompted Gov. Sonny Perdue to hold a public prayer vigil for rain.

Pearson’s plan so far has faced little opposition. The Senate quickly endorsed the proposal, and Georgia’s top environmental official said it’s an easy, quick way to build more water capacity.

“It has the potential to provide a ready mechanism to bring storage online without having to wait for years,” said Carol Couch, director of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division.

There are other signals that the proposal could flow, unimpeded, into becoming law: It’s earned the support of environmental groups who are otherwise dead-set against building reservoirs.

As Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring put it: “Expanding existing lakes is much better than building a new one.”

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