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June 4, 2008

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County protecting its basin water share
Sends letter via attorney
What do you do when you’re a government group and part of your own group threatens legal action?
If you’re the Upper Oconee Basin Water Authority, you hold a private meeting.
That’s the gist of what came from a closed-to-the-public segment of the May 28 meeting of the four-county group, which owns the Bear Creek Reservoir and its treatment plant.
Jackson County officials last month served notice via a letter from attorney Michael Bowers - a former Georgia attorney general - advising the authority that Jackson County expects the other counties - Athens-Clarke, Barrow and Oconee - to keep their mitts off of Jackson’s 25 percent share of water in the reservoir.
Given that Georgia is in the middle of a 100-year drought - with some now calling it a 200-year drought - Jackson was serving notice that it will not tolerate the kind of reservoir drawdown that accompanied the worst of the drought last fall.
So, the authority laid the groundwork to negotiate an agreement between the group and Jackson County, said Hunter Bicknell, chairman of the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority.
“The authority voted to have its attorney respond to Bowers’ letter, with an offer to meet with Jackson officials,” said Bicknell.
“There will be a meeting of all parties to discuss it and talk about what Jackson County’s issue is,” he explained. “The question was if it will be an open meeting,” Bicknell said. “The consensus is it would be closed.”
Jackson County has long-standing issues with the way water is allocated, both through the reservoir and its treatment plant. But the matter gets more severe in a drought.
In theory, Jackson County is entitled to 25 percent of the water in the reservoir. But Jackson officials say that because Jackson uses much less than its daily allocation of 13 million gallons, in times when the reservoir cannot be replenished by the Middle Oconee River, Athens-Clarke, Barrow and Oconee counties use up more than their shares simply because they get to the water first.
Bowers’ letter is, in essence, a demand that Jackson be guaranteed its 25 percent - even if that means the other partners use their portions completely.
Should the negotiations fail and litigation result, the situation will be awkward. In essence, Jackson would be suing itself and might be expected to help pay to defend its suit as well as to prosecute it. The authority as a whole might also find it difficult to develop strategy with its adversaries having a right to sit in on those talks.


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