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Polk inches toward county water system

Polk County began the last decade bone dry and ended it in the water business.
In the year 2000, if you turned on a tap, you got water either from one of the countys three municipal water systems or from a private well.
By 2009, Polk County was under way with a water system plan to serve thousands. The county was now the owner of a lake, miles of new water lines and had guarantees for up to 500,000 gallons a day to fill those lines from a source outside the county.
Eighty Green Creek residents whose wells were running dry quickly tapped on to a fledgling Polk County water system.
To achieve even this small step, however, three different county boards of commissioners and three county managers consulted and negotiated for years with a dozen governmental and quasi-governmental bodies at every level over a five-county area in two states.
Government all around us, it seemed, was busy planning our water future.
Between these officials, there were a few score meetings. At one minute, our regional public officials were hatching cooperative plans on our behalf and at the next putting up defensive roadblocks against one another to protect us.
Height of the drought
The core issues of the entire debate ownership, customers, costs and supply remain largely unresolved even today, as the next decade begins.
Polk Countys part in the water saga began at the height of the drought in 2002. Columbus and Tryon were straining to find enough water to meet their customers needs and county residents wells were running dry.
“Two summers ago, I dug six wells before I got water at my place,” commissioner Jesse Foy reported. “Ive got water now, but when I get home I might not have.”
The commissioners unveiled an engineering study in May, 2002 that showed the county could bring public water to more than 2,100 houses and businesses over the next 20 years. Forty miles of lines, for $7.3 million, were proposed in Phase I to serve “critical needs” areas.
Ah, but here comes the rub. Where would the actual water come from?
The engineers in that May, 2002 report recommended that Polk County connect to the Broad River Water Authority in Rutherford County.
By July, 2003, it was learned that Broad River Water Authority (BRWA) and the Spartanburg Water System (SWS) were forming a new Foothills Regional Water System, and hoped to let gravity carry public water through southeastern Polk County to 25,000 to 30,000 customers relying on wells in both Polk and northern Spartanburg counties.
The regional system would also serve Landrum, which was already planning to sell its water plant and lines to SWS.
White Oak Plantation, a potentially lucrative customer estimated to need up to 350,000 gallons per day, also applied to be a Foothills Regional water customer. (Poor White Oak would see its water supply need bandied about for years.)
“I think this kind of collaboration, particularly when it comes to a resource such as water, is what is needed,” said the chair of the Spartanburg public works commission.
‘We’re interested’
The Polk County Board of Commissioners in July, 2003 expressed interest in the proposed regional water system, as did citizens who saw a benefit in ensuring a long-term water supply and encouraging economic growth and jobs. Others, however, felt water lines would spark uncontrolled growth and harm the countys rural character.
“It would be foolish to not at least be prepared to use (the Foohills water system) instead of just saying, No, were anti-growth,” said commissioner Jack Lingafelter. “We cant ignore the longterm water and sewer needs of the county. We cant go drilling wells forever.”
By April, 2004, Saluda, Columbus and Tryon officials, however, were resolved to work together to keep BRWA and SWS from gaining even a foothold in Polk County. The county at first seemed to agree. County manager Karim Shihata called the BRWA plan a “clear and present danger.”
Once inside the county, the arguments went, an outside water supplier could take away Polk Countys control. BRWA could determine where water lines run and thereby influence residential and commercial development. Polk County would be a relatively small player in a huge system which could allocate water supplies, and rates, as it wished.
Most scary of all, Polk officials said, was that the SWS and BRWA might eventually gain the rights to use the Green River. If that happened, not only would Polk Countys largest water source be out of local hands, but a watershed area would be created bringing a host of restrictions.
The watershed argument would be thrown back at them later, in reverse.
BRWA offered assurances that nothing was amiss and all Polks concerns could be addressed in contractual terms, but the fear had set in and would not let go. County officials agreed in April, 2004 to look at forming their own water authority, perhaps to share ownership of the proposed Foothills system.
Within weeks, BRWA ruled any “shared ownership” out. Instead, they set a September deadline for the county to decide whether it was in or out. If Polk wanted to reserve some of the new systems capacity, BRWA said it would build lines big enough to serve Polk Countys needs. If not, BRWA would go ahead with smaller lines.
Time to classify
In May, 2004 the Polk County Board of Commissioners voted to apply for reclassification of the Green River as a county water source.
That meant, however, that they had to begin serious planning. Engineers told the commissioners that normally the state expects a governing body seeking reclassification to develop and intake on a river within three to five years of getting reclassification.
So, without a single water line or water customer, the county began negotiating with its toughest foes its own municipalities.
Town and county officials started down the same path, exploring the formation of an “authority,” a legal entity which would share the ownership of any new water system. However, by July, 2004, suspicions had already begun to sour the relationship when the county representatives were absent from a joint task force meeting.
In August, 2004, the county announced plans not for a water “authority,” but a county water “district,” the $1.5 million first phase of which would be a county water line from the countys Mill Spring campus wells to yep White Oak Plantation. Eventually, the county said, they would replace the well water with water from BRWA or Forest City.
Engineers predicted that by 2020, Polk County would need 3.2 million gallons per day. Building a county water plant to serve that need could cost $6 million to $12 million. “Too costly,” Shihata said.
To get the ball rolling, he said the county needed to first form a district, so it would have an official entity that could form agreements in a water authority with the towns.
“Each town runs its own water system and the county has nothing to say about it. Why should the towns have anything to say about the county system?” Shihata asked.
Towns alarmed
Town officials expressed alarm that the countys proposal included plans to allow the Foothills Regional system an intake on the Green River. They said it was a proposal completely counter to the goals previously set in joint meetings.
“Whos going to get Polk Countys water when Spartanburg County and Rutherford County are dry?” asked Columbus councilman Mark Feagan.
But a regional water system, Shihata said, would provide Polk a guaranteed volume of water and $10 million of infrastructure all in exchange for “shared use of the Green River.” He said Polk County planned to maintain control of the Green and to charge the Foothills system for any water taken there.
As for the towns being important customers of the new system, Shihata advised everyone to “get a grasp on reality.”
“Columbus is not going to purchase any water or invest any in the system and Saluda is at an elevation and distance that precludes a near term solution,” Shihata said. “Tryon has a near term problem that can either be solved in conjunction with the county or on its own.”
About 130 citizens attended a public hearing in September, 2004, with 22 of 24 speakers opposed to the countys water system plans. There were resentments expressed about all this fuss to run a water line to a gated community.
“Were not subsidizing (White Oak), theyre subsidizing us,” Shihata countered. White Oak property taxes were expected to reach $900,000 some day.
The only supporters of the county plans at the September hearing were fire chiefs who said a water system would be a great help firefighting and result in lower homeowners insurance premiums.
Polk County actually applied for reclassification of the Green and included the joint agreement document previously signed with the towns, but the towns cried foul, calling the state in September, 2004 to report that all cooperation had vanished.
A new view
Then, as always happens in a democracy, there was an election.
A new county administration restarted efforts to work together with the three towns. The new county board rescinded the previous boards approval of a plan to let BRWA serve yep White Oak Plantation, citing the need for more study before allowing “an outside water supplier enter the county.”
The Town of Columbus eagerly stepped up and offered to serve White Oak, but the developers were reluctant to put their future in the hands of a town using wells for a primary source with a back-up line leading to Lake Lanier.
Eventually, in May, 2005, White Oak would find a good well and move on without further meddling in local water wars.
In February, 2006, it looked again as though Polk County and the three towns would become water business partners. Together, they agreed, they would protect the Green River once and for all.
If the county ever even began using an outside source for water, Columbus Town Manager Glenn Rhodes warned, “I am totally convinced you will not receive a permit to build a plant later on the Green.”
Instead, Polk County Manager Michael Talbert laid out a less expensive plan that would build off the current municipal systems. First connect the three municipal systems and eventually supply them with water from the Green.
By March, 2006 they were all pledging money toward the $121,000 cost of a water flow study.
The clock was ticking on staking a claim to the Green.
“If youre not in the game in the next five years, the state officials say it is going to be cery difficult to get in the game,” county engineer Dave Odom said. “So I think youre making the right decision at the right time.”
Going it alone
But when, in order to finance the $10 million intake and treatment plant needed, the county asked the towns to guarantee to purchase at least 10 percent of their water needs from the countys Green River supplies, the towns balked again. Their customers were already paying off water systems that had enough supply, they said.
Finally, in January, 2008, the county said it would go forward on its own, and offered the last call for joint ownership.
“Everyone wants to be a player, but they want the county to take the risk,” said county manager Ryan Whitson. The towns suggested the county enact “impact fees,” but the county said that was a long shot for state approval and would take too long.
“During your tenure, everything will more than likely be okay,” commissioner Ted Owens chided town officials. “But what about 10 to 15 years from now after you have moved on?”
The towns were unmoved.
In April, 2008, the county signed a partnership with BRWA allowing it to run water lines through southeastern Polk County to serve the Inman-Campobello Water District. The county was to own the lines within Polk and to have access to 500,000 gallons of water per day for ten years.
In May, 2008 the county revealed its plan for year 11.
Polk County purchased Lake Adger, an impoundment of the Green River, for $1.6 million. At 240 acres and a depth of 60 to 80 feet, the lake is a source of up to eight million gallons per day.
Alas, the story does not end here.
To use Lake Adger as a drinking water source, the state said about 5,000 acres in Henderson County would have to be brought into watershed restrictions. Henderson County commissioners in September, 2009 voted to deny Polk Countys request for watershed restrictions.
Without its own customers, and without Polk municipalities involved, Henderson officials worried that Polk eventually would succumb to the lucrative chance to sell Henderson County watershed water to Spartanburg County.
Thus, as the decade came to an end, though the water source was now plentiful, the Polk County water business was still a far off plan.