Cullman’s impending water shortage is not a new threat to the area. Local officials and politicians began assessing Cullman’s water needs fifteen years ago when the county’s poultry industry skyrocketed. Officials from the city and county government, as well as a representative from the Morgan County Commission, formed an advisory board called the Cullman Morgan Water District, which specifically set out to secure funding for research and planning to prepare for increased water needs in the future. Later, other interested parties were included in the board as the need to secure water became more wide-spread in the area.
The board realized Cullman’s water reservoir, Lake Catoma, would soon be insufficient to produce enough water to service future customers with the expansion of industry and increased population in the area. The lake could produce 18-20 million gallons of water a day, but experts concluded the area would need more than 23 million gallons of water a day by year 2015.
After receiving some grant funding, the water district enlisted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to find a supplemental water source. The corps, along with additional engineers and researchers, came to the conclusion that of all the available water sources in the area, damming the Duck River in northeast Cullman County to construct a 640-acre reservoir was the answer.
In 1994, the Cullman/Morgan Water District used money from a $5 million Appalachian Regional Commission grant to pay for a study to be conducted by the Nashville Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess the future water needs of the area. Once that study was completed, the water district sought a second study, also paid for from the ARC grant, to be done by the corps with the assistance of two engineering firms, Almon and Associates and St. John and Associates, hired by the water district. The first study, which cost $125,000 predicted the dam on Duck River would cost $72 million. The second study cost $150,000, but projected the Duck River project would cost $26 million. Both studies were sent to U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill, who was the ranking member of the Energy and Water Development subcommittee, which funds the ARC. Corps Project Manager Mike Wilson said in 1995 the difference in the two cost estimates was because of design changes made in the second study, including restructuring the spillway, redesigning the intake system and restructuring the dam. The second plan would also allow the dam’s height to be increased in the future if more water was needed. According to engineers’ second study, the city needed to have the dam completed and operational in 2001, with construction to begin in 1998. The city and the county were expected to come up with 25 percent of the funding, with the rest to come from federal and state agencies. Members of the Cullman Morgan Water District directed the progress of the Duck River Dam project and sought the support and financial assistance of the water systems who relied on water from the Cullman Utilities Board. The utilities board asked each of its 33 customers to sign a contract to purchase water for 30 years from the City of Cullman in order to ensure funding for the Duck River dam project, should it go through construction. The customers signed their contracts and agreed to a maximum amount of water they were allowed to purchase. However, the contracts had a stipulation they would only be entitled to participate in the Duck River Dam project if the total cost did not exceed $50 million.
Years passed as the project became held up in legal action and the cost of inflation raised the project’s price to a 2008 estimate of $59.5 million, as predicted by engineering firm CH2M Hill, which is now managing the project for the city along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The project, including initial engineering costs, is being paid for up-front by the City of Cullman. Cullman Mayor Donald Green said the city has an agreement to loan the money to the utilities board, to be paid back once the project is completed and new water rates are established for customers.
To date, the city has loaned the utilities board $606,661.38 from its general fund for costs associated with preliminary engineering. The rest of the funding for the initial phases of the project came from state, federal and independent grants the utilities board has acquired, including another $5-million-grant the project received from the ARC in December 1996.
Why Duck River?
The ARC grant was given to the water district in order to find a solution to produce at least 24 million gallons of water per day. "That eliminated several options right there," Greer said. Plans such as getting water from Flint Creek or Mulberry Fork, which engineers had been considering, could only produce a maximum of 12 million gallons of water a day and were no longer viable plans.
"The Corps of Engineers out of Nashville was working on the Flint Creek project," Greer said. "When they realized it wasn't possible to get enough water out of Flint Creek to meet the grant requirements, they saw Duck River was the best option."
The potential site of the Duck River dam rested outside of the Nashville corps' jurisdiction and fell under the Mobile bureau's area. Greer said the Nashville engineers felt so certain about Duck River they gave up the $5 million Flint Creek project and passed the city's business on to the Mobile engineers.
"The Mobile Corps worked with the Nashville Corps in the first project where two bureaus of the Army Corps of Engineers actually worked together," Greer said. "Both groups signed off that Duck River was the best option for Cullman."
The corps had also looked at drawing water out of Smith Lake and running it through a 48-inch pipe to the treatment plant. However, Green said in order to pull water from Smith Lake the city had to have the permission of the lake's owner, Alabama Power. He said the city requested the company's permission to take water from the lake, and though granted, the city would be required to pay a fee for withdrawal, a fee for the loss of generation Alabama Power could incur, and a charge for the amount of water taken to be assessed at the end of each quarter.
Additionally, infrastructure to get the water from the lake to the city would require boring a pipe under Interstate 65, which would require permission from the state and work done by the Alabama Department of Transportation. The cost of using water from Smith Lake totaled nearly $30 million more than the Duck River dam project.
By following the Corps of Engineers' construction plan for the dam at Duck River, the utilities board would be able to draw 32 million gallons of water a day from the new reservoir. Green said while the city will not need that much water for quite some time, the utilities board will be able to retrieve excess water from the dam and sell it to other municipalities.
"We would have control of that water," he said. "If anyone needed the water, we could sell it."
"We didn't go out and say 'Hey, get Duck River,'" Greer said. "We had several different groups of engineers and over 15 years of people looking at the project and it always came back to Duck River. No one found anything they couldn't back up to say this is the best option. The Corps of Engineers even said it was one of the most natural dam sites they've ever seen."
The infrastructure required to bring water from Duck River to the city's water treatment plant was less than what would have been required by any of the other alternative water sources. The treatment plant is six miles downhill from the proposed dam site. Minimal pipes and pumping would be necessary to transport water to the plant.
Environmentally, the site seemed ideal. Cullman Economic Development Agency Project Coordinator Susan Eller said environmental assessments conducted at Duck River showed there was only between one and two acres of wetlands and no undisturbed archeological sites.
"We had a very thorough Environmental Assessment done on the Duck River project," she said. The first EA was paid for from the initial $5 million ARC grant. Eller said environmental protection agencies challenged the project and the city acquired a supplemental EA for $400,000.
Legal trouble and opposition
Since city officials' consideration of building a dam on the Duck River became public knowledge, special-interest groups and concerned citizens have stepped up to question the project's environmental integrity. The city, county, utilities board, other municipalities, water customers and interested groups held public meetings to answer questions and share information about the project. From 1996 to 2000, the project stayed in the public spotlight when then Cullman County Commission Chairman George Spear publicly voiced his concern---and later, opposition--- to the project.
In July 1998, the county commission voted 2-1 to join the city in sponsoring the Duck River dam project.
Greer said the project heard very little opposition from residents, and officials held several public hearings throughout the project’s planning phase to address concerns.
“We had no backlash from citizens,” he said. “The only thing we ever heard was about the buffer zone on the lake. There is no rule in Alabama about how big the buffer zone needs to be. All the people asked of us was not to take any more of their property than we had to. We settled on a 100-foot buffer zone.”
Two years later, the project was met with more resistance. The American Canoe Association filed a lawsuit in 2000 against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, alleging they had permitted the project without conducting sufficient environmental studies. Other groups such as Alabama Rivers Alliance, Friends of the Mulberry Fork and Wild Alabama joined the plaintiff's side.
The lawsuit remained unresolved for three years and then in August 2003, federal judge Karon Bowdre determined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit for the dam "vacated," saying the corps "did not take a hard look at the cumulative effects of other proposed projects in the Black Warrior River Basin, the future water quality of the proposed reservoir, and the effect the proposed dam will have on the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River."
Bowdre listed three issues she felt were deficient in the project's initial EAs, including analysis of water quality in the proposed reservoir, analysis of the proposed reservoir's downstream effects on the Duck River and the Mulberry Fork, and analysis of the cumulative effects of the proposed reservoir and other potential reservoirs on the environment.
The Cullman Utilities Board, with CH2M Hill, spent 18 months revising the environmental assessment report to address the judge’s concerns. Greer said the firm went through each environmental area the judge said could be impacted and addressed the courts' three concerns.
The 162-page study listed several findings to contradict the judge's assessment, including:
- The Duck River project wouldn’t create any major cumulative impact, if it was part of a proposed Birmingham Water Works project.
- The Mulberry Fork wouldn’t experience a negative effect. The river would experience a more even flow.
- Pollutants that are in the reservoir can be reduced.
While the Cullman-Morgan Water District was pleased with the second EA's findings, environmental groups were not and argued the second study was still inadequate and the area did not need to dam the river and create a reservoir.
In November 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers re-issued a permit for construction under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. In August 2007, a new lawsuit was filed in federal court by the Alabama Rivers Alliance.
The ARA released a list of concerns it feels warrant the current lawsuit, including the dam’s impact on the community and the quality of life, impairment of the flow downstream and a loss of water necessary for recreational activities.
“This damage can prevent the use and enjoyment of our rivers by future generations,” the ARA wrote in a press release. “North Alabama is unique in its geology, culture, and attractions. The natural beauty of Cullman County can be seen all along the Duck River. Those aspects are worth preserving.”
No injunction has been filed against the project and city officials said they could be ready to bid the project soon.
The here and now
"Right now, we have the permit in hand for construction," Greer said. The 404 Permit reissued in Nov. 2006 is good for 10 years. In 2007, the city petitioned the court to be a party to a new lawsuit filed in August by the Alabama Rivers Alliance and the court has granted the city’s request. The Utilities Board hired Bausch and Bingham in Birmingham to represent them. If the lawsuit goes to court, the hearing date is set for Oct. 2008. However, the pending lawsuit has little to do with the city’s reluctance to begin the project. "We could go to construction tomorrow and the Alabama Rivers Alliance would have to post bond to stop us," Greer said. The judge said at the time (when the last permit was taken away) there were three issues of deficiency. "One thing is sure, need is justified now," Greer said. "Until the drought happened, we didn’t need all the water. ... When it came down, the permit was reissued." Greer said engineers have predicted at the most, the dam would take five years to build. "It could be shorter," he said.
The most recent engineering plans established the optimal amount of water the city should expect to bring from Duck River is 32 million gallons a day. Greer said the Corps of Engineers’ design for the project would call for a 72-foot high dam. That height would allow for what Greer called "the most water for the money."
"For each foot high you build the dam, you have to build it out three-and-a-half feet," he said. "We needed to have an economic base."
The reservoir will cover 640 acres with a normal pool elevation of 725 feet above mean seal level. Within its 37-square mile drainage area, the reservoir will be able to hold 8.5 billion gallons of water. Around the lake will be a 100-foot wooded buffer zone to maintain the reservoir’s perimeter.
The Duck River itself is 20 miles long.
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