By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
CULLMAN — The Cullman County Commission has sent the City of Cullman a letter listing 10 provisions it wants to discuss before making a decision to sign on to the Duck River Dam water source project.
The approximately $60 million city water plan calls for a dam on Duck River to create a 640-acre lake and a six-mile pipeline with a 32-million-gallon-per-day capacity. The reservoir would resemble the one at Lake Catoma, currently the county’s sole water source.
Provisions noted by the county include the development of a second water treatment plant, improvement of water quality in the county system, consideration of changing demographics, rights to purchase water from other providers and other topics.
If the issues are not discussed, the commissioners said they will go forward with their own plans for a water source.
“In the event, however, the city and the board determine not to participate in a joint planning process with the county ... the county will be required to give first priority to the use of its resources to the supply, treatment and distribution of water only for the benefit of the water system of the County,” the letter stated.
Cullman County Commission Chairman James Graves said he hopes the county will be able to find some middle ground with the city.
“Hopefully, that will never get to that point where we would go it alone,” he said. “I’m optimistic that we’ll eventually be able to reach an agreement with the city.”
Commissioner Wayne Willingham agreed the county and city should work together.
“We want to sit down and talk with them, so we hope it doesn’t go that far,” he said. “But, we have to look out for our rate payers ... We’re trying to get them back to the table.”
Instead of Duck River, the county has previously proposed an alternate secondary water source plan to construct a new treatment facility that would pump water from Smith Lake, as well as upgrading the treatment facilities at Lake Catoma. The creation of a regional water board to oversee water distribution is also a part of the county’s proposal.
City officials rejected that plan and said they will not sell the city’s treatment plant.
Graves said he considers the Smith Lake project too costly to be taken on without the cooperation of other water systems.
“From what I could determine, that project would be close to $80 million,” he said. “If we tried to pass that on to the 15,000 people on the county water system it could mean more than a 100 percent increase in water rates ... I couldn’t recommend passing that on to the people. That’s just me.”
The option of digging wells and using well water for the county has also been considered as an alternative, Graves said.
In the letter sent to the city, the commissioners have proposed a new study group be established, or a mutually acceptable facilitator be hired, to discuss the water issue further.
This is not the first time a facilitator has been discussed. Both the city and county had considered hiring architect Steve Cawood — with the engineering firm Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood — as a facilitator to discuss the water issue in early November. The city voted down the plan at the time, with Mayor Max Townson noting the Smith Lake plan did not have enough documentation to be given serious consideration.
Until now, city and county attorneys have been discussing the water issue in lieu of a mediator — working to address a similar list of concerns from the county.
“The last time we talked with the county, we said we would handle this all through the attorneys,” Townson said. “This other list of questions will take some time to get answered, but a lot of it is redundant.”
Before contacting the county about another mediation, Townson said he first wants to resolve an ongoing contract dispute.
“We believe their [current] contract with us runs through 2030, and the county believes it runs through 2016,” he said. “We won’t meet with them on this until we learn about the contracts. ... We’re still waiting to hear back from their attorney.”
Graves said the county attorneys are currently working to learn exactly which contract is current.
“We’ve had our attorney looking at it, because there were so many agreements signed over time,” he said. “We’re working to learn which contract is still in effect.”
The county commission is the last major water authority in the area not to sign on to the Duck River project. The VAW, Walter, East Cullman, Cullman water department and Johnson’s Crossing Water Authorities have all agreed to purchase water from the city until 2040.
Provisions noted by the county
‰ Improvement of water quality in county system.
“Our water meets all standards,” Townson previously said. “ADEM said once that water passes our lines and goes through their lines, it’s the responsibility of their system. ADEM told them they can alleviate the problem by flushing the lines.”
‰ Development of additional sources of water, including a cost and benefit analysis of potential sources, projected long-term needs for water in the county, demographic changes and population relocation in the county since 1999, acquisition of lands and a time line for development.
‰ Development of additional water treatment capacity, including a second treatment plant and capital improvement to the existing plant.
‰ Cooperation to obtain federal grants.
‰ Funding of costs of capital improvements to systems to meet ADEM requirements by 2012, as well as improve or expand water lines from the treatment plant to Golf Course Road.
“We’ve already discussed this and we are not going to fix that unless they come on with us,” Townson said of Golf Course Road.
‰ Participation by all water systems in the county, including payment of a pro-rata share of costs of additional water sources and water treatment facilities, as well as reserved rights to buy water from other sources.
“The current contract says they have to buy water from us, except in drought conditions they can buy from anyone,” Townson said. “If we let them purchase water from anyone anytime, it causes the cost of water to go up for other wholesale customers because we can’t pump as much.”
‰ Creation of a water supply district, in accordance with Reservoir Financing Agreement dated July 1, 1998.
‰ Status of existing water purchase agreements by the city and county.
‰ Determination of water rates based on an equitable allocation of costs.
‰ Establishment of means of direct communication by and between city and county officials.