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Macon, Rabun leaders eye future of water

Would a water-starved Atlanta ever come after the Little Tennessee River? While it may be a long shot, the prospect — however remote — has made some residents of Macon County uneasy.

The concern has been sparked by forays into the water and sewer business by Rabun County, just over the state line in North Georgia. Part of Rabun County lies in the Little Tennessee watershed, which flows north into Macon County. The rest lies in the Savannah River watershed flowing toward Atlanta.

Once Rabun County gets in the water and sewer business, it could theoretically swap water and sewer across the two watersheds — called an interbasin transfer — which could include sucking water out of the Little Tennessee and depositing it on the Savannah River side bound for Atlanta.

The notion was strongly contested by Jim Bleckley, county manager of Rabun County.

“There has always been talk about an interbasin transfer, but that is smoke and mirrors,” Bleckley said. Rabun County is seeking a discharge permit for a sewer treatment plant on the Little Tennessee River. Bleckley said the theory of an interbasin transfer is being “drummed up” by environmental opponents of the discharge permit.

“Anytime there are people opposed to something they will manufacture things to help their cause,” Bleckley said. “There is no danger of the Little Tennessee water going out of the watershed to Atlanta. No rational person would consider that an issue.”

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The concerns emanate from more than merely environmental groups, however. Macon County Manger Jack Horton and Franklin Town Manager Sam Greenwood don’t think it is far-fetched that Atlanta one day might set its sights on water from the mountains.

“That is a potential concern,” said Horton.

Greenwood called it a “real possibility.”

“Atlanta is basically drying up,” Greenwood said. “Even with the drought cycle easing up, the major problem is their growth has consumed their water resources. For any more growth or sustainability, they are going to have to have more water.”

Atlanta’s future water woes have nothing to do with Rabun County’s sewer treatment permit now on the table, however, according to Mark Bebee, Georgia state environmental engineer over 18 counties. Bebee said he doesn’t understand why the discharge permit has people worked up about the prospect of an interbasin transfer.

“That is something that is fictitious and speculative. It doesn’t occur right now,” Bebee said. “They are speculating on things that might happen 10, 20, 30 years down the road. I can’t comment on what is happening 20 years down the road.”

Jenny Sanders, director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, isn’t content to sit back and wait, however. By the time such a proposition comes to the table, it could be too late.

“We have to be thinking about it now, because somewhere down the line people are going to do something we never thought they would do,” said Sanders said. “I think we need to pay attention before it is a problem.”

Sanders doesn’t think it is irrational, as Bleckley called it.

“Twenty years from now people are going to be doing things that aren’t rational,” Sanders said. “I think our water needs are going to get to a point where people are going to start behaving unreasonably.”


A history of water wars

Georgia has a knack for getting into water disputes with neighboring states. To the south, the ongoing and litigious tri-state water war centered around Atlanta sucking too much water out of the rivers that flow into Alabama and Florida. And to the north, Georgia waged a border dispute with Tennessee in hopes of getting at water in the Tennessee River outside Chattanooga. Georgia reached back nearly two centuries to justify a border re-alignment, that would have extended across lower North Carolina.

“They were claiming the state line would be up somewhere around Otto,” Greenwood said.

It’s enough to plant a seed of suspicion in the minds of many in Macon County not to put anything past Atlanta’s thirst.

If Rabun County ever tried to sell water out of the Little Tennessee, it would have to be approved by Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, however. Interbasin transfers are not taken lightly by the permitting agency.

Another consolation is that the Little Tennessee would be a drop in the bucket compared to Atlanta’s water needs.

“The flow in the Little Tennessee River is so small, it would never be thought of as a financially viable project for Atlanta,” Bebee aid.

Bebee said postulating on an interbasin transfer is akin to asking, “If a meteor hit our planet, what would you do?”

Todd Silliman, an Atlanta attorney with an expertise in water rights, said he wouldn’t go so far as to call the concerns ruminating from Macon County paranoid, but thinks the chances are remote.

“That is really hypothetical,” Silliman said of a water transfer from the Little Tennessee. But, “You never know what could happen years and years down the road. There are situations in the West where water is piped half way across California, so I would never say it would never happen, but I don’t anticipate that in the near term.”

Silliman cited the obvious cost-benefit issues: would the cost in exchange for a relative pittance of water from the Little Tennessee be worth it? It isn’t as crazy as some ideas Silliman has heard, however.

“I have heard about every idea under the sun for Atlanta,” Silliman said, including desalination of ocean water and even transporting frozen water from Alaska.

Silliman was hired by Rabun County to help shepherd its discharge permit along. Silliman said Rabun County’s intent was to provide sewer to prospective industry and development.


Rabun’s industrial needs

Rabun County’s plan calls for converting a former industrial wastewater treatment plant at the closed-down Fruit of the Loom textile mill into a sewage treatment plant. The county hopes an operational sewer treatment plant at the former factory site will lure a new industry to set up shop there.

But neither Rabun nor the Georgia environmental division know what that industry might be or what its discharge would contain. Some industries pollute more than others.

“Our concern is how to tell what the discharge limits should be without any idea of anyone who is going to be in the plant?” Greenwood asked.

The town of Franklin sees the Little Tennessee River as a possible source for drinking water one day, Greenwood said. The town currently gets it water from Cartoogechaye Creek.

Sky Valley Resort has expressed interest in running sewer lines to the plant once it comes on-line, and even agreed to subsidize the cost of the plant. Sky Valley would only use a fraction of the plant’s 2 million gallons a day capacity, however. That leaves plenty for an industry that may or may not come along — or for the county to run sewer lines in the future to serve residential and commercial growth.

“The main idea was to provide jobs for the community. It would depend on the growth in the future whether there was anything much else added,” Bleckley said. “We have no idea 20, 30, 40 years from now what the need would be, but the idea is the permit and capacity would be there to accommodate growth in the county.”

Rabun County leaders thought they were getting a good deal on the old treatment plant, which was being off-loaded since it was no longer in use.

“At the time they said that it was such a good opportunity we can’t let it pass by,” Sanders said.

The county spent $1.8 million to purchase the old Fruit of the Loom facilities. It will take around $4.5 million to get both a water and sewer treatment at the site plant up and running.

Some have questioned whether Sky Valley will be a viable customer after all. The company that owns Sky Valley, Merrill Trust, has landed in financial troubles, according to the Clayton Tribune. The financial issues, including liens filed against Sky Valley by unpaid contractors, caused Rabun County commissioners to question whether Sky Valley would live up to its promise to subsidize the cost of the sewer treatment plant.

A contract between Sky Valley and Rabun County calls for the first contribution by Sky Valley to be made when the plant is successfully permitted; the second portion when the plant comes on line.

“They are entitled to this payment,” Silliman said. “They have spent a lot up front and they are ready to be reimbursed for some of that.”

The county may not have embarked on the project without the commitment from Sky Valley to offset the costs. Without Sky Valley and with no industrial clients on the horizon, the county would have no customers to speak of unless it started running sewer lines.

There’s another threat to Rabun’s payment from Sky Valley coming through. The contract expires if a discharge permit is not secured by a certain date. (Rabun County has not shared a copy of the contract, so the exact date is not know, but is rumored to be early fall.)

The timeline for the discharge permit has been pushed back, however, due to numerous requests from the public for a formal public hearing on the issue — most emanating out of Macon County, including the town of Franklin, Macon County, the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, and WildSouth. It could take a couple months to schedule and hold the hearing, and weeks or months beyond that to process the comments and render a final decision on the permit.

The Georgia environmental division got 15 written public comments on the permit. All expressed concerns. None voiced support, according to Gigi Steele, environmental specialist with the Georgia water quality division.

Bebee, the state environmental engineer, was irritated by the overt environmental interests trying to derail a treatment plant. The discharge permit is needed to spur industry and provided much needed jobs, Bebee said. The former mill employed 900 people, some from Macon County, he said.

“We are all feeling the pinch on the loss of those jobs,” Bebee said.

Bebee also pointed out that the discharge permit sought by Rabun County will have better water quality than the discharges once put in the river, and will be a smaller volume. But that doesn’t seem to matter to the environmental groups.

“They are against a treatment plant period,” Bebee said.

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