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Sewer situation has developed over years
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Forsyth County News
Forsyth County’s current sewer capacity dilemma has its roots in the early 1980s, more than a decade before the county had the ability to treat wastewater.

When large commercial properties such as Johns Creek Technology Park were going up, Forsyth needed a way to provide them with water and sewer.

Fulton County had wastewater treatment facilities not far from the Forsyth County line. The state’s Environmental Protection Division gave Fulton permission to expand its Big Creek plant near Roswell to treat Forsyth’s wastewater.

Tim Perkins, water and sewer director for Forsyth, said the county opted to sign an intergovernmental agreement with Fulton to buy 2 million gallons a day of sewage treatment capacity. Forsyth, in turn, started selling that capacity to commercial and residential developments.

Perkins said Fulton has “flow meters in those sewer lines and they bill us monthly on the flow that we’re sending to their plants.”

Thanks to additional capacity acquired over the years, Forsyth has about 2.45 million gallons a day of wastewater capacity from Fulton, Perkins said.

In 1997, Forsyth bought an additional 500,000 gallons of treatment capacity from the city of Cumming for $3 million.

Forsyth didn’t have its own waste water treatment facility until summer 2004. Since then, it has bought four other private facilities.

Between those five, the county has a permitted capacity of nearly 2.3 million gallons per day from its own facilities.

Altogether, Perkins said, it has a total capacity of about 5.2 million.

Cumming audits more frequently

Charging an additional sewage capacity fee is fairly standard practice.

Cumming, which operates its own sewer and water system, recently asked Koch Foods to buy an additional 12,000 gallons per day of capacity.

The difference, said Cumming Utilities Director Jon Heard, is the city audits businesses every year or two. By its own admission, Forsyth County had not been keeping track until about two years ago.

“Sewage capacity is a one-time-only fee, so if [businesses] guesstimate properly, they should never have to pay any more,” Heard said. “But if things change, it would be up to the city to perform an audit to make sure the company has purchased enough capacity.”

Because capacity follows the property not the business, Heard said it’s common to see capacity increase when a new business moves into a property.

For example, the use could double if a restaurant took over the former location of a book store.

Heard said in Koch Foods’ case, the company likely expanded or increased production, jumping from using 70,000 gallons per day to 82,000.

“It equates to approximately $240,000,” he said. “They are currently making payments toward meeting that requirement.”

While Forsyth County’s wastewater treatment facility wasn’t built until 2004, Heard said the city’s has been operating since the 1960s.

The city’s wastewater plant, located on Bethelview Road, was recently expanded to treat 8 million gallons of wastewater per day.

About 500,000 gallons of that capacity is reserved for the county, which paid $3 million for it in 1997.

In the past few years, the city has invested about $60 million in various water and sewer-related projects, including a $30 million expansion to the wastewater plant.

“The city’s goal is to always be one step ahead of the growth curve,” Heard said. “Currently, all facilities have adequate capacity to serve the needs ... in the area through 2025 and beyond.”

Process will be 'ongoing thing’

Moving forward, Perkins said, the county’s goal is to keep up with its nearly 3,000 commercial customers on a more regular basis. All have been audited, it’s just a matter of maintaining.

“This will be an ongoing thing,” he said.

To that end, the department is in the process of implementing new billing software bought in 2008.

“The plan going forward [is] we should be able to enter in the capacity for all of these accounts and it will automatically flag us if they exceed their usage,” Perkins said. “We don’t have a written program down on the protocol that we’ll use just yet, but we will notify them and start working with them.”

The capacity issue has had unintended consequences, some of which have been beneficial to all parties.

While north Georgia is no longer in a drought, the capacity overuse notifications sent to businesses have resulted in some in-house evaluations on water use.

Chris Davis with SwimAtlanta said the company’s original $106,000 bill resulted in repairs to a leaking swimming pool. It also added water-saving shower heads and switched to more water-efficient toilets, among other measures.

“If part of their motivation was to get people to conserve, I think that’s probably been successful also,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of money trying to be green, which we do anyway because we have solar on a lot of our buildings. And we’re still trying to conserve.”

Like many of the audited businesses, SwimAtlanta has worked with the county to settle its debt.

For those who ignore the county’s communications, Perkins said an additional surcharge likely will be added to their water bills to incrementally pay off the debt.

James McCoy, who heads the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, said he huddled with county officials and chamber members on several occasions. The organizaiton has since made it a goal to facilitate better communication between the parties.

The chamber’s role, he said, is to help the county better understand business concerns, and also to be a “conduit for the county to make sure that the business community understands the county’s rationale behind this, whether or not they agree with it.”

Forsyth is just about out of capacity, Perkins said, despite the ability to treat about 5.2 million gallons per day between its own facilities and those of Cumming and Fulton County.

Still, the shortage came as no surprise. The county, he said, has a completed design for a new plant.

The Shakerag plant will treat about 1.25 million gallons per day, Perkins said. It has a projected price tag of about $20.5 million.

The $725,000 the county has collected in back fees and the additional $1.2 million in possible payments will all go toward the new infrastructure.

“We’re just waiting and working on the final permits from the state,” he said, estimating that could take about nine more months. “As soon as we get that permit, we’ll be starting that construction. We would like to be [beginning] ... at the end of 2010.”

Staff Writer Julie Arrington contributed to this report.