In the water business, as in most businesses, there isn’t much room for complacency.
Eddie Jeffers, general manager of Huntsville Utility District, knows that as well as anyone. He has seen the utility district go from pumping water from what was little more than a pond to drawing from a billion-gallon reservoir that is the envy of many rural water companies. Now, with water levels back to capacity in the aftermath of last fall’s extreme drought, Jeffers is asking the question: what is the best way to prepare for future droughts?
For Huntsville Utility District, one way might be to raise the level of the Flat Creek Reservoir, the 210-acre, 1.25-billion-gallon impoundment that supplies the water needs of most Scott Countians.
“It’s something I would like to see done,” Jeffers said of the possibility. “It would help the community a lot and help for the future.”
When an extreme drought struck the region in 2007, it was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. That was before the same thing happened on a similar scale last year, less than 10 years later.
“The way they talk, the droughts are going to get worse,” Jeffers said. “They might and they might not.”
When thousands of citizens rely on your supply of clean water, you can’t bank on the “might not.” That’s why Jeffers has been in talks with the Industrial Development Board of Scott County and with engineers about the possibility of raising the water level of Flat Creek Reservoir by three feet. It’s a little difference that would go a long way, Jeffers said.
At the height of last year’s drought, Huntsville Utility District was supplying water to both Plateau Utility District in Morgan County and to the Town of Oneida. Some 2.2 million gallons of water were being pumped from the reservoir on an average day — up about 30 percent from the 1.5 million gallons per day that serves the normal needs of HUD’s 4,700 households and businesses. Plateau Utility District recently absorbed Sunbright Utility District, which has long been a regular customer of Huntsville Utility District. The Town of Oneida, meanwhile, began purchasing water from HUD to supply its customers — which includes the town from the Oak Grove intersection north, as well as customers outside Oneida on the northern end of the county — after the waters of the Howard H. Baker Watershed Lake dropped perilously low.
In the old days — circa 2002 — the drought situation would not have been so easily resolved in Oneida. Back then, Huntsville Utility District was pulling its water from New River, and from a 35-acre lake that was covered by Flat Creek Reservoir. These days, federal regulations make pulling water from New River more difficult, due to the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area further downstream. The Town of Oneida has run into the same regulations when proposing to tap the Big South Fork River as an emergency water source.
But with the Flat Creek Reservoir in place, the droughts have not been much of an issue. While there is only so much water that can be pumped through the six-inch line that interconnects the Oneida and Huntsville water systems, Huntsville Utility District was able to satisfy Oneida’s water needs during the droughts of 2007 and 2016.
In 2007, the increased needs of the neighboring communities took a toll on Flat Creek Reservoir, with the water level dropping 10 ft. below capacity. This past fall, the lake fell less than half that. HUD was not forced to implement its drought management plan, and the lake was back at capacity by April 24.
It is the possibility of more extensive droughts in the future that have prompted talks about raising the lake level. The dam structure is already in place, and HUD already owns to the 1,450 ft. contour line around the lake — with property restrictions to 1,500 ft. above sea level. That’s well above the lake’s current level of 1,383 ft. Increasing the lake’s capacity would be as simple as raising the overflow and raising the riprap on the dam.
“Simple” is a relative word, of course. In addition to a wetland on the west side of the lake that would have to be moved, cost is the biggest obstacle. That’s where the ID Board comes in, hoping to help HUD secure a grant that will absorb most of the cost.
“We met with engineers up there at the lake, and they thought we could do it for $100,000 or maybe less,” Jeffers said. “If we can get an 80/20 grant (that will pay for 80 percent of the project), I think my board is ready to do that.”
While the raised lake level would be most noticeable in the streams that feed into the reservoir, the appearance of the lake would not change much around the old strip pit high walls that surround much of it. It’s a little change that would go a long way, Jeffers said.
“Three more feet on that lake in a drought situation, pulling two million gallons of water a day, you’re looking at a 60-day supply, or maybe 90, just by raising it a few feet,” he said. “It’s not really raising it that much and it’s giving you, in this county, quite a bit of water.”
This article is the July 2017 installment of "Profiles of a 3-Star Community," presented by the Industrial Development Board of Scott County on the second week of each month as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series.