Oconee County might be in good shape to meet the county’s water and wastewater needs through decades more of fast growth.
That could change, however, depending on just how explosive Oconee’s growth will be between now and 2050.
“We know how much water we’re going to need,” Oconee County Water Resources Director Wayne Haynie told a group of about 40 people, including members of the Oconee County Commission, at a water resources forum in the Oconee County Civic Center on Tuesday.
Official state government population estimates put Oconee’s population at about 65,000 by the year 2050.
If those projections hold true, the county owns the rights to enough water to last well beyond then. The county now gets water from the Bear Creek Reservoir in Jackson County, owned jointly by Oconee, Athens-Clarke, Barrow and Jackson counties. But the Oconee County government also owns about 29 percent of the new Hard Labor Creek Reservoir, now nearing full pool. Walton County owns the remainder of the reservoir.
Walton County could need water from the reservoir within the next decade, but Oconee may not need Hard Labor Creek water until mid-century. When full, the 1,370-acre lake will hold 12 billion gallons of water and be capable of supplying 52 million gallons of water per day to the two counties.
When planning began for the reservoir, planners expected the reservoir’s water to be needed much sooner, but in Oconee County as in the rest of the nation, per capita water use has declined over the past decade, thanks primarily to new plumbing codes requiring more efficient water use, so planners now expect water demand to grow at a slower rate than population in upcoming years.
“Long-term, we’re probably in as good a position as any other county in north Georgia,” Haynie said.
The state population projections assume Oconee population growth will continue to be high, but not to match what the county has experienced over the past 30 years.
Oconee County’s population about was about 36,000 people as of 2015, and about 37,000 last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. That’s more than 12 percent since 2010 and nearly three times its 1980 population of about 12,427.
If Oconee grows at the same rate over the next 30 years as in the previous 30 years, Oconee’s population could be closer to 86,000 than 65,000.
Oconee’s wastewater status isn’t as easy to gauge, but engineer Paula Feldman of Duluth’s Engineered Horizons offered a solution that could extend the time before Oconee County is in danger of exceeding the amount of treated wastewater it can legally discharge into the Middle Oconee River.
Oconee’s two wastewater treatment plants are now treating about 800,000 gallons a day of wastewater, Haynie said. Some of that goes into a land application plant, but most is processed at a plant on Calls Creek, a tributary of the Middle Oconee. Demand is expected to reach that 5 million gallons per day limit by 2050.
Construction is now underway on an expansion of the Calls Creek plant from its current capacity of about 667,000 gallons per day of wastewater to 1.5 million.
But if the county builds a “wastewater re-use” system, it could greatly reduce the amount of wastewater it puts into Calls Creek or directly into the Middle Oconee from a possible additional wastewater plant, said Feldman, a consultant to the county government.
In that system, treated wastewater would go into a separate distribution system to be used for such purposes as irrigation, but not for drinking.
The county had already started construction of a wastewater re-use system prior to the recession of 2007, Haynie said.
Haynie posed three questions to his audience at Tuesday’s meeting.
One was whether to adopt wastewater re-use as a strategy; a second was whether to maintain Oconee’s current allocations of wastewater treatment capacity — 30 percent for residential, 50 percent commercial and 20 percent industrial.
A third question may be more contentious: whether Oconee should expand its wastewater collection with a gravity-fed system of pipes.
A gravity-fed system would be less costly in the long run than what Oconee has now — a network relying on 35 pump stations that force wastewater uphill rather than simply allowing it to flow downhill, using the force of gravity. Haynie would like to eventually phase out pump stations, he said.
But a gravity-fed system would be built mainly alongside streams such as Barber Creek and McNutt Creek, sometimes passing through homeowners’ back yards.
Haynie also asked whether the county should adopt a policy requiring new subdivisions above a certain size to connect to the county wastewater treatment system, rather than relying on septic tanks.
Such a policy would help reduce sprawl, he said.
But “if that means sewer lines going down major creeks, I’d say no,” said one audience member.