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10/04/00 - Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority By ACCG



Association County Commissioners of Georgia

Building A Regional Approach: Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority
Contact: Hon. Wendell Dawson, Oconee County Chairman and Chairman Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority, P.O. Box 528, Watkinsville, GA 30677, 706/769-5120, 706/769-0705 (fax)

Description of Effort
The Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority (Authority) was formed to acquire and to develop adequate sources of water supply including the construction of reservoirs, treatment facilities, and transmission infrastructure and the collection and treatment of wastewater. This regional water resources effort involved five main entities: the Authority and the member counties of Athens-Clarke, Oconee, Barrow, and Jackson.

During the mid 1980’s when most of Georgia suffered under a prolonged drought, the member counties, located in the piedmont region of Northeast Georgia with little groundwater and limited surface water found they needed an economical and reliable water source. The Upper Oconee Basin Group (Basin Group) formed in 1987 to review findings of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) relative to water resources in Northeast Georgia. The Basin Group was comprised of municipal and county elected officials from Athens-Clarke, Barrow, Jackson, and Oconee counties and staff from the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center.

The Basin Group conducted studies beyond the Corps report to assess regional water supply and management needs. These studies led to the determination that the creation of an Authority empowered to address the water and wastewater needs of the four counties was desirable. In 1994 the commissions of the four counties adopted local resolutions approving the passage of state legislation, which created the Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority as a political subdivision of the State of Georgia and a public corporation.

The Authority can provide water services and facilities, wastewater services and facilities, or both, to each of the four member counties. Specific services and cost allocation formulas are detailed in the enabling legislation and in two intergovernmental agreements that together describe the authorities, responsibilities, and obligations of the various entities. The organizing representatives gave a great deal of thought to devising an administrative structure that had built-in political checks and balances between the Authority and its member jurisdictions. They successfully developed a structure and a system that counters common concerns related to surrendering local control, assuming collective indebtedness, and acquiring adequate services to make joining a regional effort worthwhile.

Managerial Considerations
The member counties decided it was in their collective best interest to purchase water from a regional reservoir owned and controlled by the Authority. The Authority is authorized to secure governmental permits, licenses, and approvals and proceed with design, financing, acquisition, and construction of the reservoir and related projects. In return, the Authority is obligated to deliver an allocation of water supply to each member that was based on the population ratios and water customer count of the counties at the time the Act was signed.

Although the Authority is empowered to develop and provide wastewater services, at present it is focusing on two major projects: the development of the 505-acre Bear Creek Reservoir and associated pump station and the construction of the Bear Creek Water Treatment Plant and associated distribution system. The relocation work is nearly complete, the dam will be under construction in the summer of 1999 and the regional reservoir is expected to be fully operational by July 2001.

Under the Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority Act (H.B. 1514), the enabling state legislation that created the Authority, political controls, protection of the watershed environment, and the following specific policies were addressed.

The Authority encourages regional planning, while permitting the independence of its member counties to determine their own growth strategies. The Authority encourages water conservation and the performance of its projects in an environmentally sensitive manner. The Authority is governed by a Board that is directly responsible to the citizens through the commission chairpersons of its member counties. The Authority ensured that stream withdrawal rights among member counties was addressed prior to funding the reservoir projects. The Authority cannot give preferential rate treatment to one member county over another and must maintain uniform rates for comparable service. However, member counties can reduce or increase the uniform rate between and among themselves in response to an enhancement to the water supply such as treatment or transmission. The Authority cannot obligate any member county to guarantee revenue bonds or capital indebtedness unless the member county has approved. Membership in the Authority does not affect the ability of counties, municipalities, and authorities to own and operate water and wastewater systems.

A ten-member Board governs the Authority using a total of seven votes of which no member county has more than 2.5 votes. The Board is composed of the chief elected officials from the member counties, each of whom has one vote. An additional member is appointed from each county. These four folks share a proportional vote that collectively total one vote. The fractional vote’s value is based on the population of the member county but does not exceed 50 percent to a single member. The Upper Oconee Resource Management Commission (Commission) appoints one Board member and one member is appointed by the other nine members. The Authority is empowered to hire an executive director and other employees necessary to carry out its projects and business.

Although the Basin Group was comprised of municipal and county elected officials, countywide membership in the Authority is required. In this manner, each county is responsible for city participation in the decision-making process to reduce membership to a manageable size and to discourage fluctuating participation throughout the lengthy development process as terms in office and specific agendas change.

The enabling legislation also created the Commission, a large broad-based planning group that advises the Board. It is comprised of the chief elected officials of the four member counties, a representative from each city that operates a water system or purchases water from a member county, a representative from each public water authority, and four additional members who may have environmental or consumer interests and who are appointed by the government of each county. The Commission has the power to appoint a member to the Board, to make recommendations to the Board on regional water policy and planning and on the Authority’s budget, and to approve the executive director of the Authority.

The membership terms of the elected or appointed public officials to both the Board and the Commission are concurrent with their terms of office.

Technical Considerations
An intergovernmental reservoir and raw water supply agreement between the Authority and the member counties addresses development of the Bear Creek Reservoir and allocation of the reservoir water supply. The terms of the agreement, entered into July 22, 1996, are effective for 50 years. Although the Bear Creek Reservoir project does not include transmission of raw or treated water to member county distribution systems, it does involve all work necessary to develop a reliable source of raw water including:

  • construction of a dam across Bear Creek and a reservoir,
  • construction of a spillway and associated outlet works,
  • construction of a dike along Highway 330,
  • relocation of a natural gas pipeline, Savage Road and a cemetery,
  • relocation of the Middle Oconee River intake and pumping station,
  • construction of a raw water main from the Middle Oconee River to the reservoir, and
  • construction of one or two raw water pumping stations.

The permitted reservoir yield is 52 million gallons per day (mgd). Each member county has an established maximum quantity that may be withdrawn from the reservoir annually based on a percent of the total yield. Similar formulas establish monthly and daily withdrawal limits for each member county based on peaking factors.

Member County Annual Allocation:

  • Athens-Clarke 44 %
  • Barrow 19 %
  • Jackson 25 %
  • Oconee 12 %

An intergovernmental water treatment and transmission agreement between the Authority and Oconee, Barrow, and Jackson counties addresses the construction of the Bear Creek Water Treatment Plant. Under the 50-year agreement entered into July 22, 1996, the Authority will own and manage the facility and provide water treatment and transmission to the three member counties for resale. Athens-Clarke will pump raw water to a water treatment facility that is owned by and located in the county.

A 1997 amendment to the intergovernmental water treatment and transmission agreement designates the total capacity of the water treatment facility as 21 mgd and each member county’s share of that capacity.

Member County Capacity Allocation:

  • Barrow 8 mgd 38.10 %
  • Oconee 4 mgd 19.04 %
  • Jackson 9 mgd 42.86%

The Authority has the right to install meters to determine the quantity and condition of the supply but each member county also has the right to install meters at their expense to confirm the Authority’s data. Any one of the member counties can unilaterally request an expansion of the Authority’s water treatment facility, by not less than 2 mgd, and the Authority will undertake that expansion at the expense of the requesting member.

The Authority intends to strictly limit interbasin transfers, but will permit certain short-term transfers and resale of water outside the geographic boundaries of the member counties. This is defined as transfer or resale of all or any portion of the output and services represented by a member county’s allocation for a period not to exceed 10 years. In the event of a water emergency, proposed interbasin transfers would be offered to all member counties in proportion to their respective rights to the water in the reservoir.

Financial Considerations
Construction of the Bear Creek Reservoir and associated works are estimated to cost $1,800,00. The Bear Creek Water Treatment Plant project is estimated to cost $1,790,500. Each member’s share of the costs will be based on their percentage share of capacity.

Member counties cannot sell or transfer the Authority’s water outside of the geographic boundaries of the four member counties unless the water resource capacity is first offered to all member counties in proportion to their respective rights to the water. The sale of water from one member to another must be at the uniform rate established by the Authority. Member counties also can sell their entire allocated share of the reservoir water supply but, again, the other member counties have right of first refusal.

The state enabling legislation empowers the Authority to issue revenue bonds to pay acquisition and construction costs, however the Authority is obligated to provide raw water at the time the first bonds are issued. The intergovernmental agreements describe the member’s obligations to repay the Authority, a provision of which is Athens-Clarke County’s agreement to pay its share of the acquisition and construction costs in a cash contribution prior to the issuance of the bonds. These stipulations allow the Authority to generate funds but tie it to the delivery of water to apparently prevent years of servicing bond debt with no benefit of service. The Authority makes payments to site counties based on an approximate loss in annual ad valorem taxes since 1996 to compensate the location of the reservoir and related public works.

Operational costs will be budgeted annually and allocated proportionately to each member. At the end of the year, the Authority will determine if the aggregate amount paid for operational costs will provide for the recovery of expenses. In the event of overpayment, the Authority will credit an amount to the member counties. In the event of underpayment, the Authority will add 10 percent of that amount to each of the next 10 monthly billing statements. If a member county fails to pay or defaults, the other member counties and the application of amounts in a reserve fund will make up the difference. However, the member in default is not relieved of its general obligation.

The Authority will prepare and issue to each member county monthly reports that include a financial and operating statement, the status of the annual operating and the construction budgets, and an analysis of operations.

The Authority strives to perform its projects in an economically sound and environmentally sensitive manner. It plans to encourage water conservation and has taken steps to maintain and to protect adequate water quality in the reservoir. Each member county located within the reservoir watershed must enact and enforce zoning ordinances including an ordinance establishing a Watershed Protection District consistent with the State’s Rules for Environmental Planning Criteria for Water Supply Watersheds. The Authority will reimburse a watershed county for direct costs related to the implementation and enforcement of all Authority approved watershed protection programs and ordinances and other laws required by the Section 404 Permit.

Although the withdrawal of the first drop of water is not expected until July 2001, the Authority was developed and has functioned with the political checks and balances that have satisfied all interests. The membership and voting structure of the Board, in particular, was a foresighted strategy that has fortified stakeholder support and commitment. There has been very little resistance to the project from citizen or interest groups on a regional level and a great deal of ease from the member counties in working together to achieve a regional goal.