What at first seems like a bump in the road to establishing a water reservoir in Haralson County may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Just last month, the Haralson County Water Authority (HCWA) learned that several of the proposed reservoir sites are home to a federally threatened species: the fine-lined pocketbook mussel, Hamiota altilis. Dinkins Biological Consulting, LLC, who conducted the aquatic species survey, found the largest population of the mussels, more than 100, in Bush Creek on the Beech Creek property, which was purchased by the HCWA in 2008 for $4 million and was a front runner for placement of the reservoir.
At the time of purchase, the HCWA was not aware of the mussel’s presence in Bush Creek.
“We conducted a Phase 1 environmental assessment that included everything but getting in the creek and looking for the mussel,” Walker recalls. “But we couldn’t do that; it wasn’t our property yet.”
However, Water Authority Director Charlie Walker says discovery of the mussel isn’t exactly bad news.
“Twenty years ago, everyone thought this mussel was extinct in our area,” Walker says. “These mussels are protected because they are very good sentinels of the health of your stream. If you start losing it, that tells you something about the health and welfare of your stream. Now, to say that 20 years ago we had none, and now we have a population of more than 100, [...] this is the most pristine our streams have been in years.”
Though the Beech Creek property was one of the primary sites the HCWA was considering for the reservoir, a location has yet to be officially decided. In fact, five sites have been studied as possible future sites for a reservoir. These sites include Mann Creek, Cochran Creek, Little Creek, and Flat Wood Creek in addition to the Beech Creek property.
“All of these sites can produce the same yield,” Walker said, “between 8.14 to 8.9 million gallons a day.”
During their upcoming December meeting, the HCWA will choose their preferred alternatives before presenting their application to the Army Corps of Engineers. The HCWA will use several factors to decide which site to move forward with, including any additional land acquisition required, the cost of laying pipe from the reservoir to the Little Tallapoosa River, as well as the depth of the reservoir each proposed location could produce.
“We’ll take all of these sites and look at them and decide which one would be our best option for a reservoir,” Walker said. “Because of the mussel, we probably won’t be able to use [the Beech Creek] property as a reservoir site, but it is still valuable.”
Walker says that though the HCWA probably won’t be able to place a reservoir on the property, known locally as “Devil’s Kitchen,” they can probably still get their money’s worth out of it.
“Because we own the property, we can use it as a mitigation bank,” Walker said. “Hopefully, we can demonstrate to the feds that we can take care of these mussels and use the property for endangered species credits, and we get a big compensation for that.”
Mitigation credits are used when a local government entity needs to complete a project that will disturb, for example, an endangered species, part of a creek or wetlands. If their project will not create a large disturbance, the federal government may allow them to purchase mitigation credits, which ensures that an equal amount of wetland, creek or endangered species in another location will be protected. The feds act as a middle man between those wishing to purchase these credits and those with the land and resources who are willing to sell them. Those selling credits are obligated to keep their rivers, wetlands or endangered species thriving as part of the contract. In return, they receive compensation.
Credits can run anywhere between $37 to $150 per credit, and the Beech Creek property has the potential to yield creek, wetland and endangered species credits for the HCWA.
“If we can enter this (Beech Creek) property into the mitigation bank, it will most likely offset the cost of us having to place the reservoir on a different site. These credits should eventually overtake any additional costs,” Walker said.
The HCWA will have to formally consult the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to explore the possibility of using the 744-acre property as part of their compensatory mitigation plan. In the meantime, Walker says the HCWA will continue to move forward with their plan to acquire a reservoir for Haralson County.
“We started out with a list of 300 items we had to complete, sequentially, to get where we are today with this reservoir,” Walker recalls. “Now, we have our needs analysis complete, our alternatives analysis complete, all we have to do is select a site, create our compensatory mitigation plan and then turn in our permit to the state. After we choose a location, it’ll be full speed ahead until we turn in our application.”
Walker says that since 2008, the HCWA and board has done a lot of work to make the dream of a reservoir a reality.
“This board has done well as forward thinkers,” Walker said. “They know where we’ve got to go, and they’ve taken the lumps to help us get there. There was a lot of red tape and brick walls to get through. They could have given up at any time, but they stayed the course and kept our goals in mind.”
Walker said the authority has come too far now to quit.
“Without adequate water, our area can’t grow: no new homes, no new schools, no new businesses,” Walker said. “Our No. 1 goal is to provide water for the people of Haralson County for the next 50 years.”