The state employee who handles water quality certification for reservoir projects was on vacation when a permit was issued for the Tussahaw Creek project planned for Henry County.
Keith Parsons, a witness at a hearing at which the permit is being contested, testified that after he went on vacation, the permit application was approved even though he had not done a final review of it.
But Parsons added that he saw no obstacles to its approval. "There appeared to be no outstanding conflicts as far as having this project certified," Parsons testified at the hearing, held at the Office of State Administrative Hearings in Atlanta.
Henry County says it needs the reservoir to meet future drinking water demands.
The Georgia River Network and Henry homeowner LaTrelle Brewster want the certification invalidated, saying it was issued in error.
The county Water and Sewerage Authority and the state Environmental Protection Division are arguing that the certification process was properly carried out.
Parsons was a founding member of the GRN, which is battling his employer, the EPD, over the Tussahaw project. "I agree, it's extraordinary," water authority attorney Patricia Barmeyer said of Parsons' ties with both groups.
Parsons said he resigned from the GRN board of directors while reviewing the Tussahaw case because "I recognized that there would be the potential for a conflict."
Under questioning by attorney Don Stack, who represents the GRN and Brewster, Parsons said he taught himself to review water quality permit applications.
"There are no existing procedures that I know of in the EPD process" for reviewing such permits, Parsons said. He said he's reviewed "hundreds" of applications since 1989.
Terry Green, Parsons' supervisor, said he relied on Parsons' recommendations. "I'm not in the water quality assessment business," he said.
Stack asked Alan Hallum, manager of the EPD's water protection branch, why the permit application was moved along after Parsons went on vacation.
"What was the rush?" Stack asked after citing several EPD e-mail exchanges. "I do not know," Hallum replied. "I don't ask my boss [EPD Director Harold Reheis] when he says he wants something."
Both sides argued about whether the project would eliminate existing uses of Tussahaw Creek, such as fishing and swimming. State law requires that a project not eliminate an existing use.
Fishing would be permitted in the reservoir, but not swimming, because it would be a drinking water reservoir. Hallum said a swimming prohibition would not reflect on the quality of the reservoir water.
Barmeyer asked him whether angling for lake fish rather than creek fish would eliminate a use. "No, ma'am, it would still be classified as fishing," he said.
Another key issue is whether the allowable minimum for the amount of water released from the reservoir would be enough to sustain aquatic life downstream.
After the Tussahaw reservoir and other project applications were submitted to the state, the state Board of Natural Resources raised the minimum allowable flow amount. But Tussahaw and other projects were not required to meet the new standard.
The hearing is expected to continue Jan. 9. The Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing the Henry reservoir project and is expected to make a decision next year. The Corps could make approval of the project contingent on the state water quality certification being finalized.