By Beth Grant, Bill Matturro, Margaret Tyson and Peter Wright
Since Georgia River Network and American Rivers challenged the federal permit for the Tired Creek lake, not once did the Cairo Messenger contact those organizations or the hundreds of organization members in Georgia for their side of the story. More importantly, while the Messenger published our names as local citizens opposing the lake, they did not ask us to explain why we oppose the project. Some of our input to commission meetings was reported and letters to the editor printed, but the Messenger has not done critical investigation of the issues. This lack of balanced journalism was even praised at the permit ceremony by one of the speakers! In repeatedly failing to provide its readers with both sides of the story, the Messenger has failed to meet its journalistic responsibility of fully informing the public on this project. Furthermore, the challenge to the Corps of Engineers permit has repeatedly been characterized as a suit against the county, which it is not. For these reasons, we explain our opposition to the project below.
There are many reasons why we, and many others, oppose the construction of the Tired Creek dam, which is planned to create a 960-acre lake.
n Cost vs benefit: In regard to the TC project, our concerns seem as much aligned with “Tea partiers” as with "tree huggers.” We don't apologize for being environmentalists. In fact, we think everyone should be concerned with the environment, but we also question whether it is the proper role of a small local government to use taxpayer money to construct such a large fishing lake. In a county that cannot properly fund law enforcement, which refuses to grant modest pay increases to county employees, and will not support the public library, the idea that our tax dollars should be used for this purpose seems unwise at best. There has already been more than $15 million committed, and the cost could multiply, as it has for other Georgia communities with lake projects.
Are Grady County taxpayers really willing to pay SPLOST or other taxes for this project?
A significant portion of the SPLOST up for vote this week would go to repay the current $15 million bond and its interest for this project. This bond was entered into by the county commissioners last year,after they already knew of the likelihood of a challenge to the permit. Grady County taxpayers, know you are and will continue to pay mightily for this lake!
The expected benefits of such a lake may be greatly exaggerated.
Is there really a need for this size fishing lake? This is the first recreational fishing lake of its size ever permitted by the Corps of Engineers. Lake Seminole is only a short distance away and there are many other fishing opportunities in the area.
Proponents have stated it will become the "economic engine" for the county. Is this realistic? Where is the evidence? Even the Corps of Engineers permit document concluded it would have minor economic impact.
n Dangers: It is estimated it will take five years for the lake to fill under "normal" rainfall conditions. But are we having normal rainfall? Certainly not in this last year and during many other recent droughts, and it is likely that the new normal will not match that of past decades. Viewing the three small streams that would feed the lake during the drought this summer, we found one was down to a small trickle and the others were very small indeed. Is it possible the lake would take more than the projected five years to fill or even never fill as planned? If it did ever fill, would a 960-acre lake be maintainable? 960 acres of water will create a lot of evaporation. How often will the lake be as envisioned? How often will much of it be shallow and filled with vegetation, rendering fishing difficult or not possible?
In recent years, there have been a number of small Georgia communities with water supply lake projects who have found these reservoirs to be disastrous to their economies. For instance, the City of Canton, population 22,000, along with the Cobb Marietta Water Authority, recently built the 400-acre Hickory Log Creek Reservoir, costing them more than $100 million, about five times original estimates. Meanwhile, according to Canton's Mayor Hobgood, the city "can't afford to buy two fire trucks and repave streets” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Oct. 29, 2011). “We bought something and we can’t pay for it,” city councilman Bill Bryant said. Councilman John Beresford describes it as a “financial disaster." (AJC, Aug. 22, 2011).
Likewise, Walton and Oconee counties have already taken out a total of more than $60 million in bonds for the 1,400-acre Hard Labor Creek Reservoir, although they have yet to acquire all the land and have no clear timetable for breaking ground. Both of these projects are supported by the same consultants Grady County is using. These projects are not for luxury purposes, yet they are proving extremely problematic.
n Environmental concerns: Damming of streams and rivers is generally seen as creating significant environmental harm. There is even a trend throughout the country to take down dams to restore environmentally enhanced conditions. Concerns of downstream harm are behind Leon County's decision to join the lawsuit against the Corps permit. All environmental organizations we are aware of have opposed this project ever since it morphed into such a large lake, and these concerns appear to have been overcome by political more than scientific decisions.
n Options: Although much of the almost 3,000 acres owned by the county has already been clearcut and these funds spent, there still remain many hundreds of acres of beautiful forests that will be cut and drowned by this project. The Citizens Commission that was tasked with making plans for the property in the 1990s, as well as the earlier state park planning, recommended many more diverse uses and not one big lake. Although the Corps document points out disadvantages to smaller lakes, one has to wonder if such a large lake that would drown so many beautiful habitats and their accompanying wildlife is the best way to go.
The Citizens Commission identified several compatible and diverse economic opportunities for a much smaller lake project. They included hiking, horseback riding, camping and bike trails. Some of these remain options. However, developing and funding these opportunities is in addition to the current millions the county has invested or earmarked for construction of the large lake. The shape of the proposed lake maximizes shoreline and minimizes other land uses of the property. We are not aware of any effort to identify and protect the healthiest forested areas remaining that are part of our south Georgia natural heritage. We walked much of the property before it was closed to the public, and found much of the most desirable forests to be already destroyed or to be planned to be cut for the proposed lake. The current plans call for only a 100-foot natural buffer around the lake, and do not provide for any preservation of remaining forests. Costs for further development of the property beyond the lake has not been discussed, yet the success of the lake may be dependent on that development.
The success of this economic plan will be realized, if at all, in another 10-20 years. The cost of this economic plan currently is unknown. Could costs surpass $50 million? Whatever the cost, it will be on the shoulders of the taxpayers as plans for grants fell through. Will it be worth it?
Conclusion: There are so many reasons to question the wisdom of this project for this small county. It seems to us that the planning has been continued "full steam ahead" without full consideration of these concerns, other issues such as the need for a new bridge that DOT has not agreed to fund as far as we know, and the pending litigation. As we have spoken before the commission in public forums, at commission meetings, and in submitted written input and Letters to the Editor, our concerns appear to have been met with deaf ears. Two of the commissioners have even expressed lack of knowledge of the exact location of the project and the creeks proposed to feed it. We question how much direct research they have done vs how much they have relied on and trusted the words of consultants, who, so far have gained the most from this project.
We have received much support from many other citizens who have seemed afraid to speak up while the established community leadership and the Messenger talk only in glowing terms of this project. Many express a sense of powerlessness. Some have spoken out against it at the zoning hearings.
We are very concerned the Grady County leaders may be holding on to a very flawed and unrealistic vision for Grady County, whose costs may grossly outweigh its benefits as well create a loss of our natural heritage. We believe there are other more affordable options for this property that can better benefit the county and residents.
If you are a Grady County taxpayer and have doubts as we do, please discuss them with your commissioners and let them know of your concerns. Demand from them and the Messenger that they present evidence that the benefits of this project to the community are greater than its risks.