The Great Lake Debate: More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Dade's Reservoir Project

​When the Dade County Commission last June spent $50,000 to option a 60-acre, $500,000 plot of land along Lookout Creek, with the ultimate purpose of building a dam and reservoir on it—and with promises that the public would enjoy swimming, fishing and canoeing in the resultant lake, plus reassurances that the feds could probably be persuaded to cough up much of the money—the first reaction of many county residents was a big, collective: “What?”

This was the first mention of such a notion, and even for those who attend monthly commission meetings religiously, it seemed to have sprung, fully formed and clad in flippers, by some strange parthenogenesis from the conjoined bald spots of the commissioners.

And what a notion it was. What, asked bewildered taxpayers, did Dade need with a lake? Dade had, after all, a reliable source of water, Lookout Creek, which had never gone dry, not even during the droughts of 2007 and 2016. As for recreation, Dade had mountains, football, television and beer. And as for $50,000, much less $500,000, didn’t the commissioners carp more or less full-time, without pausing for breath, about how tight money was?

Yet at the June meeting there was little discussion about it among the commissioners, and not a breath of dissension. Thus the second reaction of many county residents to the lake idea was a collective bewilderment that might be expressed:

“Are these men on drugs?”

Then, following the January county commission meeting, County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley revealed another motive for the purchase of the Lookout Creek land off Sells Lane, and currently owned by Jack Sells:

Rumley said Tennessee American Water, a for-profit, investor-owned subsidiary of corporate giant American Water, also had its eye on the land, and had in fact tried to buy the Dade Water Authority a couple of years ago. The inference was that Dade must secure the land—and thus the sole opportunity to dam Lookout Creek—in order to keep its nonprofit water company from being swallowed up in TAW’s gaping corporate maw.

A Tennessee American spokeswoman subsequently denied her company had bid on the Lookout Creek land, but minutes from a meeting of the Dade Water Authority’s board of directors confirmed that TAW did in fact offer to buy Dade’s water operation in 2014.

One way or the other, the time seemed ripe for a talk with Doug Anderton, manager of Dade Water and Sewer Authority. The Planet accordingly sat down with him recently and has asked him subsequent questions by telephone as more emerged.

Doug Anderton, who manages the Dade Water Authority, poses beside a National Rural Water Association banner. He is a past president of NRWA.

Anderton stressed that procuring the Lookout Creek land was a vital part of Dade County’s long-range water strategy. “If you want to control your own destiny and have your own water source, and have a much better-quality water, then you’re going to have to make plans for it, for that future. Otherwise, you’re going to be at the mercy of wherever you can get your water,” said Anderton. “You’d be at the mercy of Tennessee American.”

Both Anderton and Rumley used that phrase “at the mercy of Tennessee American,” and further discussion with Anderton underscored this perception of TAW as an existential threat to Dade’s nonprofit water authority--and as a factor in the county's conversation about building a reservoir. But more of that in a minute. First, some background:


The Dade County Water Authority has been around 55 years and Doug Anderton has managed it for most of them. He came aboard just out of college in the early 1970s, only 21 years old. It seems a big responsibility for one so young but the water authority was young then, too. It had been formed in 1962 and when Anderton arrived it was EPD (Environmental Protective Division)-approved to pump just 800,000 gallons per day out of Lookout Creek.

“I started working on getting the permit increased, and I went from 800,000 gallons per day to 2 million gallons per day, and at the same time we increased the treatment plant to 2 million gallons per day,” said Anderton.

For most of Anderton’s tenure at the water company, Dade was growing slowly but steadily, and the water authority was adding about 150 taps a year. Around 10 years ago, it looked as if the 2 million gallons might not be enough.

“At that time I installed some devices in the creek that told me what the creek flowed, before I even asked for a larger permit,” said Anderton. “I found out the creek was flowing 11 million gallons a day.”

With 11 million gallons going through the creek each day, EPD approved the water authority to take out a maximum of 3.8 million. The rest, explained Anderton, was needed to keep the creek flowing, support the other life forms that depended on it, and provide for an ample “dilution factor”—that is, to dilute the treated water that came out of Trenton’s wastewater plant so that the creek didn’t become polluted.

“They’ll probably never increase it again, because the creek is not likely to ever flow any more water, and as long as there’s a wastewater treatment plant downstream from it, we’re probably at where we’ll always be,” said Anderton. “We have a well on the property of the treatment plant that we’re permitted to take out .4 million gallons. [So] we’ve got available raw water of probably 4.2 million gallons a day.”

In 2017, said Anderton, the authority treated 2.1 million gallons a day. “We have available 4.2, so we’re at about half capacity,” he said.

Nor has that capacity been compromised much by drought, he added. 2016 was the worst drought year in his memory, and while it was true the maximum per day the authority took from the creek during 2016 was 3.03 million, versus 2.59 for 2017, the average amount for both years was roughly the same, which is to say the 2.1 million. “When you look at our numbers for last year versus the drought year, there’s very little difference,” said Anderton.

Lookout Creek kept flowing during the drought while others dried up. Anderson says that’s because it originates from a spring that comes out from under Lookout Mountain 22 miles away. “Who knows where the aquifer that feeds that main stream that creates Lookout Creek came from?” he said. Maybe, he speculated, somewhere that wasn’t affected by the statewide drought.

Plenty for now

So with the authority taking 2.1 million gallons per day from the creek, and the same amount still available, Dade does not seem to be hurting for water. “You could come up and say that one industry could eat that up,” said Anderton. “But it’s been kind of designated that industries that we would get in Dade County are probably going to happen on US 11 somewhere north of the city and south of the state line. That seems to be where there’s availability of property that interests them. With that in mind, with our tie-in to Tennessee American, we could take care of those industries with water we get from Tennessee American, and then have Lookout Creek for residential use.”

Dade County, Anderton explained, has no written contract with Tennessee American, just a 4-inch emergency tie-in tap that unless updated could deliver a maximum of half a million gallons a day. “We tied into Tennessee American for emergency reasons, if there was a spill south of us that polluted Lookout Creek and all of a sudden we didn’t have a source of water for a month or two month or six months,” said Anderton.

So to sum up the current situation, Dade is amply supplied with water unless or until demand doubles. “None of us know what the growth will be,” said Anderton, “so it’s hard to estimate when we’ll reach that point where we need to treat more water than we have available to us from Lookout Creek.” But it took from 1962 to 2017 for demand to grow from 800,000 to 2 million gallons a day, he added. It seems unlikely the demand could go beyond 4 million within the next few years.

What Anderton wants to stress, though, is that the reservoir project is not about the next few years. “It’s not today’s conversation,” he said. “I don’t think there’s an intention of building a dam and a reservoir right now. It’s just securing the property for the future.”

Strategic Plan 2005

The water authority does plan for the future, said Anderton, and in 2005, with its then-engineer, Bobby Nolen, the water board began formulating a 20-year “strategic plan” for the future.

“The first thing you think of is wells and underground aquifers, but we’re not blessed with them in Dade County because of the structure of the terrain underneath us,” said Anderton. “Next best was the idea of a reservoir.”

Engineer Nolen found only two possible sites for a reservoir: Crawfish Creek where it crosses Highway 11 south of Trenton, but that had limited possibilities; and Lookout Creek at the old mill dam off Sells Lane, which would have been perfect. “In elevation, if the mill dam was two feet higher than it is now, you’d back water up all the way to the foot of Lookout Mountain,” said Anderton. “The terrain drops off and it makes just a natural reservoir. It would not flood any of the roads but it would hold millions of gallons of water.”

Anderton said he didn’t have a copy of the 2005 strategic plan, so he got in touch with the engineer, Bobby Nolen. Nolen, who has since retired, said there was in fact a physical document—probably some 40 to 50 pages—he had furnished to Anderton at the time and could send to the water board now as an electronic document if asked to. “It’s probably on some shelf in some obscure place in the office,” he told The Planet by phone. “I could probably walk in there and find it in 15 minutes because I know what the cover looks like.”

In any case, Nolen furnished this synopsis of the 2005 plan in a Jan. 8 letter:

“For long-term water supplies, the Plan discussed a water reservoir on Lookout Creek at the old mill site, deep wells in the south end of the County, and water purchase from Tennessee American. Based on a preliminary analysis of each alternative, the mill site would be the most feasible, cost-effective resource for the County to develop as an independent, long-term water supply.”

“That’s what the study showed, but the property was not for sale,” said Anderton.

That changed—and the current discussion started—in 2017, when Jack Sells, eponymous owner of the Sells Lane property, for whatever reasons of his own decided to let go of the land.

The Sells Lane property. The county bulldozed a new entrance to allow engineers, surveyors and other visitors in and out.

When that happened, for Anderton and the county commission—or at least for Commission Chairman Ted Rumley, who also chairs the water board—the idea of buying the land for an eventual reservoir did not drop suddenly as if from Mars, as it seemed to the public, but had all the above background. Anderton said he talked about it with Rumley and with Alex Case, mayor of Trenton, as a matter of providing for Dade’s needs in the long term.

“It’s a backup plan, and without it you have no backup plan, other than buy water from Tennessee American Water,” said Anderton. “We have great source water and as a result of that we have great drinking water. Would it be the same if you were getting it from Tennessee American and the Tennessee River? Or would you not be in a position to negotiate at least a decent rate from them that you could pass on to your customers if you did not have your own plan?”

The Specter of TAW

If Tennessee American seems to be figuring in Anderton’s narrative like a grim specter looming over small water companies that fail to plan, he admits there might be some basis for that. “American Water basically has always been that way, that they absorbed the little systems around them if they had the opportunity,” he said.

Tennessee American is just the local subsidiary, Anderton stressed. It’s an arm of the national corporation American Water, which has many others, stretching from California to next door in Tennessee, where it supplies the city of Chattanooga as well as smaller surrounding municipalities. It’s a for-profit, it aims to make money, and as a member and former president of the National Rural Water Association, Anderton has known many rural water managers who perceived it as a threat. “I knew people in West Virginia who just hated them,” he said.

Rural water companies, said Anderton, evolved like rural electric and telephone service, though more slowly. Private enterprise saw opportunities to make money supplying big cities, but small towns, not so much, and country mice were left to their own devices. “It wound up being some leaders in the community that got together and got to working and established themselves a little water system,” said Anderton. In Dade, said Anderton, Bill Pullen, father of Dr. Billy Pullen who currently sits on the water board, was particularly instrumental in forming the local water authority.

The Dade Water Board. At ends of table are Ted Rumley, chair, and Sherri Walker, authority office manager. Other members are Eddie Cantrell, H. A. McKaig, Dr. Billy Pullen and Charles Breedlove.

“A lot of these systems that were doing that had a private system near them, but it was a new venture and they weren’t interested,” said Anderton. “Well, then when these people had put all this work into building their systems, then that private system, that didn’t want anything to do with them when they needed water so bad, then they became interested. That just didn’t sit well with rural Americans. ‘When we needed you, you wouldn’t talk to us. Now that we don’t need you, you want to take us over.’ That’s the kind of talk you hear from rural managers in other states.”

In Dade’s case, said Anderton, Tennessee American did not come on as particularly aggressive when it offered in September 2014 to buy the Dade Water Authority, just made its presentation and retreated gracefully when Dade said no thank you.

But shortly after that, Anderton noticed that the company had purchased an ad in the legals section of The Dade County Sentinel, the county’s legal organ, which puzzled him. Here it is, courtesy of Kathy Gossett at The Sentinel, who found it in her files.

APPLICATION TO REGISTER A BUSINESS TO BE CONDUCTED UNDER TRADE NAME, PARTNERSHIP OR OTHERS: State of Georgia County of Dade. The undersigned does hereby certify that Tennessee American Water Company is conducting business as Tennessee-American Water Company in the City of Trenton County of Dade in the State of Georgia, under the name of Georgia American Water, and the nature of the business is the supply of water. And that the names and addresses of the persons, firms or partnerships owning and carrying on said trade or business are: Deron Allen, President, 109 Wiehl Street, Chattanooga, TN 37403. Filed in office, this 12th day of November, 2014.

“It didn’t make a lot of sense. It could have been construed as being some sort of under-the-table action,” said Anderton. “I often wondered, what was their long-range plan in doing that, because the city of Trenton is not connected to them.”

TAW Gave Money to Deffenbaugh

In any case, The Planet found no Georgia American Water on the Georgia Secretary of State’s list of Georgia corporations. Tennessee American Water is listed on the SOS website, though, as a contributor to the campaign of Dade’s voice in the Georgia House of Representatives, John Deffenbaugh (right). TAW is listed as contributing $500 to Deffenbaugh, also in November 2014.

Both the legal ad and the contribution to Deffenbaugh could be interpreted as indications of TAW’s intentions toward Dade in late 2014. But as for more recent hints that the for-profit utility has designs on Dade’s water system, a company spokeswoman flatly denied Ted Rumley’s assertion TAW made an offer on Jack Sells’ land. Sells himself would neither confirm or deny it other than to say he’d received several offers and that Rumley wasn’t lying. Anderton could only comment: “I know someone came and saw Jack.”

It would not be fair to leave this subject without mentioning that in Anderton’s interview with The Planet, he referred to Tennessee American not just as a potential threat to Dade’s water autonomy but also as a prospective partner that could supply the wet stuff in quantities great enough to attract and service future, badly-needed industry in the north end of the county. “That’s the ace in the hole of having that tie-in,” he said.

Where do we go from here?

Most of this has been background, leaving important questions open: How will Dade pay for the dam project? Chairman Rumley has said the county is exploring grants to pay for the land. He has also pointed out that the water authority had $1 million approved for emergency projects in the last SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) Dade passed.

Anderton says $150,000 of that SPLOST allocation was spent for boring under the railroad tracks in the north part of the county to supply the new Vanguard plant and the same amount for wastewater lines. “So there’s still $700,000 of that million available,” he said. Will $450,000 of that money be spent for the Sells Lane acreage? Well, that's possible, said Anderton.

And as for where the money will come from—much more of it, obviously—to build a dam and a reservoir, much less to maintain and police them, that may not even be a question for this generation, said Anderton. Right now it’s just important to procure the land to build them on.

Yes, says Anderton, Dade is pretty well fixed for water at the moment, but the county needs a backup plan for 15 or 20 years down the road.

“My granddad said even a lowly little rabbit’s got a back door,” he said.

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