Lawsuit targets 'water grab'
Macon, Georgia - A coalition of river advocacy groups filed a lawsuit and injunction Wednesday against the Army Corps of Engineers to try to prevent a reservoir from being built on a tributary of the Ocmulgee River upstream from Macon.
The Henry County Water and Sewerage Authority obtained a permit from the corps in October to build a 1,477-acre reservoir on Tussahaw Creek. The Altamaha Riverkeeper and Georgia River Network are asking a U.S. District Court judge to stop the plan, saying the corps did not consider regional water planning and didn't conduct a detailed environmental impact study.
Altamaha Riverkeeper James Holland called the proposed reservoir "a water grab." He sees it as a harbinger of the future: The Atlanta metropolitan area, running out of water and fighting with other states over water it withdraws from rivers like the Chattahoochee, is turning to rivers like the Ocmulgee and Oconee, uncomplicated by interstate tensions.
Allison Keefer, state reservoir coordinator, said "What you have is local communities who recognize water's getting scarce, and what they're saying is, 'We're getting ours before it's gone.' "
Tussahaw is one of 17 north Georgia reservoirs in the planning stages; an equal number were built within the past 15 years, including three in Henry County and the Macon Water Authority's Town Creek Reservoir in Jones County.
The lawsuit states the Tussahaw project would be one of the largest reservoirs permitted in Georgia in the past decade. Jim Parker, spokesman for the corps, declined to verify this. He said he and the corps' attorney had not yet seen the lawsuit Thursday.
The suit states the corps violated federal law "by failing to adequately disclose, analyze, consider, and address the significant environmental impacts of the reservoir, including the cumulative impacts of the multiple reservoirs and the Reservoir's indirect impacts on growth and development patterns."
"We have the framework in place to address these issues regionally, yet here goes the corps giving out permits piecemeal," said David Farren, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing the river groups.
During a public comment period after the authority applied for the corps permit, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service both said a full environmental study was needed.
The EPA's comments mentioned the reservoir's potential impact on Macon's water needs - especially during drought conditions like in 2000, when "the low flow in the Ocmulgee River at Macon seriously impacted Macon's drinking water withdrawal, prompting the city to request a permit for a low head dam across the river to facilitate their intake.
"This extraordinary action" highlights the need for better management of water resources in the Upper Ocmulgee watershed, according to the EPA's Feb. 28, 2001, comments to the corps. "Thus, there should be a high level of environmental documentation for any new project that has the potential to impact water quality, aquatic habitat and human uses."
Tony Rojas, director of the Macon Water Authority, said he was not aware of plans for the Tussahaw Creek Reservoir. "But obviously, adequate flows and adequate water to serve our community is always a concern of ours," he said, adding that in future the authority will keep close tabs on the corps' permits.
The Tussahaw Creek reservoir has been embroiled in controversy from its inception. Henry County began timbering the footprint of the dam and condemning land in Butts County, where part of the reservoir would be located, before getting corps approval for the project.
Butts County's commissioners and several property owners sued to block the condemnations. At one point, Butts County reached an agreement with the Henry County authority over host fees and taxes. But the deal was never finalized. Butts County's own water authority is still seeking an agreement on water allocation, said Butts County Attorney Michael O'Quinn.
Henry County Water and Sewerage Authority officials did not return phone calls Thursday.
Several planning efforts are under way. Keefer is drafting a new state reservoir plan which will outline procedures municipalities should follow when they need access to more water, including conservation and public participation measures. In the last year, the reservoir program has shifted focus to regional water supply solutions besides reservoirs, Keefer said.
Last August, a joint committee of the state Senate and House recommended
legislation creating a Water Study Planning branch under the state
Environmental Protection Division. The new branch, which would develop
a comprehensive state water management plan, has not been funded under
Gov. Sonny Perdue's budget.
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