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'Georgia's Area 51' eyed for reservoir

Proposed 2,000-acre lake could be money-maker for Atlanta

Drive a few minutes west of Dawsonville's outlet shops off Ga. 400 and you'll find yourself in a pristine woodland that's earned a place in conspiracy-theorist folklore as "Georgia's Area 51." During the height of the Cold War, part of the Dawson Forest was used by aerospace giant Lockheed as a top-secret test site for developing nuclear aircraft.

Although that project wasn't successful (that we know of), the 10,000-acre forest is shaping up to be strategic ground in a very different kind of war. Purchased in 1971 by the City of Atlanta as the potential site for a second airport that was never built, Dawson Forest is now the preferred location for a proposed 2,000-acre reservoir that could give Georgia a fall-back position in its ongoing Water War with Florida and Alabama.

As the state's odds of winning the 20-year-old battle over Lake Lanier — the region's primary source of drinking water — appear increasingly grim, Gov. Nathan Deal has made reservoir expansion and creation a top priority. And Mayor Kasim Reed thinks the Dawsonville land could play a role in that effort.

"I'm ready to be part of Gov. Deal's plans to solve our water problems," Reed was quoted by local columnist Maria Saporta as telling a recent Kiwanis Club of Atlanta meeting. "We have to be a part of Georgia's solution on our water resources issues."

Since early last year, a panel comprising city department heads, civic leaders and attorneys have pored over proposals that could ensure Atlanta's water supply — and boost its bottom line. And in recent weeks, the city has ratcheted up its efforts to evaluate proposals for the potential reservoir, which studies show could pump up to 100 million gallons of water per day via 82-inch pipelines for thirsty metro Atlantans.

The city's ideal situation — and as the sole landowner, it's in the position to call shots — would entail a partnership: Atlanta would provide the land while a private developer or local water authority would develop the reservoir by damming Shoal Creek, a tranquil tributary of the Etowah River. Under two proposals on Reed's desk, the remaining 8,000 acres would be preserved as parkland, contributing to a green swath of protected land that would abut Chattahoochee National Forest. City officials anticipate the results of a study that will determine whether some acreage should be preserved for a feeder airport to ease increasingly crowded Hartsfield-Jackson International.

City officials are expected to decide what path to take with the project within the next 30 days. But even before a shovelful of dirt has been moved, environmentalists are warning that there are better ways to ensure water supply — ones that won't permanently mar Mother Nature and raise the ire of downstream neighbors.

So why undertake a time-consuming and costly process that has drastic consequences for the environment? David Bennett, Reed's senior policy adviser, explains that, depending on the business plan both parties ultimately negotiate, the city would be able to subsidize its budget with millions in revenue generated from water sales to neighboring cities and counties.

"We're not doing this because we're in desperate need of water right now," Bennett says. "It's more about the city helping the state solve a big problem that's regional in nature and being a player and partner on that basis."

But damming Shoal Creek comes with an array of challenges and red tape — none of which could be overcome before the 2012 deadline a federal judge gave Alabama, Florida and Georgia to agree how to share water from Lake Lanier or risk watching withdrawals from the man-made lake dwindle to 1970s levels.

First, the creek is home to several endangered species of fish, and efforts to disrupt their habitats could throw a wrench in the federal permitting process. Pumping water from the reservoir to metro Atlanta, which is in a different planning district, violates current law. And then there's the notion of building a drinking-water reservoir near a piece of land that was once the site of nuclear reactor tests — a scenario that seems lifted from an episode of "The Simpsons." (In 1992, then-state Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Tanner — now the state's go-to lobbyist on reservoir issues — said the area posed no threat to surrounding communities. Follow-up studies have found the frequented areas don't pose a health or safety hazard.)

Environmentalists say the Dawson project and other reservoirs could be unnecessary if the state and local governments instead offered incentive-based conservation measures or expanded existing reservoirs. If the city needed water, they argue, it could partner with Cobb County to create a spur off its pipeline for a fraction of the Dawson Forest reservoir price.

Or, quite simply, the state could increase Lake Lanier's capacity. If Congress were to order the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to raise the reservoir's dam by two feet, Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring says, the Hall County reservoir could store an additional 29 billion gallons of water. Such a move, he says, could ease tensions with Alabama and Florida and ensure adequate water for metro Atlanta's current and future needs.

What's more, says Will Wingate of the Georgia Conservancy, new reservoirs inflame tensions with downstream neighbors — which include neighboring states — by siphoning off water.

"If you're going to dam up 80 to 100 million gallons per day that normally goes into the Etowah River system, what kind of message does that send to leaders of Alabama that we're good stewards of our water?" he says.

Bennett says many of these obstacles can be overcome; other reservoir projects have mitigated impact to wildlife, and thorough testing prior to construction could determine if any radiation lingers. But considering the land's inclusion on a state list of potential reservoirs and the fact that the city already owns the property, he says it makes sense.

"The next big decision we have to make, which is coming, is our path forward," Bennett says. "Once we decide this is the best way to do it, which I think we'll do fairly quickly, then that will drive all the decisions that follow. I'd be surprised if in the next 30 days we don't have a path and that's the one we want to pursue."