The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld Judge Joe Booth’s July 14 ruling rejecting a motion by the Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority to dismiss Jackson County’s suit over the capacity of the Bear Creek Reservoir.
That, says board of Jackson County commissioners chairman Hunter Bicknell, bodes well for the county as its lawsuit progresses.
“The detail they went into in upholding judge Booths’s ruling gives the county a pretty good position going forward,” said Bicknell Monday.
Meanwhile, a Jackson County proposal to settle the suit could be completed in the next two or three weeks. Essentially, the offer will provide the data gathered by an engineering consultant making the case that the actual capacity of the lake is about 44 percent of what the authority has historically claimed the lake could provide.
Jackson County sued last year, alleging that data used since day one to determine the capacity of the reservoir — and thus the amount of water to which each owner is entitled — is deeply flawed.
The authority, of which Jackson County is a member, filed a motion to dismiss the suit on several grounds. Booth rejected the motion in a hearing in the Superior Court of Jackson County, the authority appealed but the Court of Appeals upheld Booth’s rulings — and the county’s position — on each point.
Following that hearing, the authority issued a settlement offer proposing an eventual determination of capacity, but nothing specific, according to Bicknell.
“What we’re proposing would include specific data,” said Bicknell, which, he said, might motivate the authority to conduct a similar study that could “lead to some kind of agreement that would lead to a measurement of the capacity.”
C.H. Gurnsey & Co. is doing the fieldwork for the county.
Local officials believe that the yield of the 505-acre regional reservoir is actually less than half what the authority has long assumed, and they have data they say supports their claim. If that is the case, some of the other members, particularly Athens-Clarke, have on occasion used more than their entitlement shares of the water and part of Jackson’s allocation. The county is suing to stop that practice.
Jackson County also argues that the intergovernmental agreement among the four member counties calls for the yield of the reservoir to be recalculated after every drought, but there has been no such re-calculation following the drought of 2007-08. The basin authority’s official yield is 58 million gallons a day (mgd). The consultant hired by Jackson County puts the yield at 24 mgd.
Jackson County asked that the regional authority hire a consultant acceptable to both parties to conduct an independent analysis to confirm or deny Jackson County’s findings, but the basin authority voted to deny that request. That led to the lawsuit.
A finding on behalf of Jackson County would have a huge impact on Athens-Clarke, which has a 44-percent stake in the reservoir. If Jackson’s figures are right, Athens-Clarke would be entitled to about 10.5 mgd from the reservoir. At times, Athens-Clarke has drawn 18 mgd or more. Jackson County owns 25 percent of the reservoir’s capacity.
Jackson County’s position is that when other members of the group use more than their entitlement, they should have to pay the counties from whom they take it for the water.