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Athens-Clarke to purchase quarry for long-term water storage

The Athens-Clarke County Unified Government (ACCGov) has agreed to purchase the Rock Hill Quarry in Athens on Winterville Road for long-term water storage.

On October 6, 2020, the Mayor and Commission approved the purchase of approximately 190 acres from Rock Hill, LLC, WAS Rock Holdings, LLC; MJS Holdings, LLC; and The Newland Family Foundation, Inc. Hanson Aggregates Southeast currently leases the quarry for mining. The approval also approved assumption of the lease and quarrying agreement that ends Dec. 31, 2030. The Rock Hill Quarry will cost $23 million, $8 million of which will be offset by mining royalties.

"This project continues Athens-Clarke County’s long tradition of sustainability and resilience, such as our investment in the Bear Creek Reservoir and the water conservation measures heighted during the 2007-08 drought," says Mayor Kelly Girtz. "The water reservoir enabled by using the existing asset of the Rock Hill Quarry will allow untold future generations of Athenians to have greater availability of water, nature’s most precious resource."

"Acquiring the Rock Hill Quarry is a tremendous linchpin for the future resiliency and sustainability of our community. Water is an essential resource, and climate change will make the future uncertain for those communities that are unprepared," says ACCGov Manager Blaine Williams. "The Mayor, Commission, and Public Utilities Department staff deserve a great deal of credit for diligently planning and budgeting for the water needs for all of us and generations to come."

The quarry will eventually provide additional water storage for drought resilience. ACCGov’s Public Utilities Department currently draws its water supply from the Middle and North Oconee Rivers in Athens and the Bear Creek Reservoir in Jackson County. 

During severe drought, the only raw water source for the residents and industries of Athens-Clarke County is the Bear Creek Reservoir, which was completed in 2002 and is shared with Barrow County, Oconee County, and Jackson County. Withdrawals from the reservoir will increase as all four counties grow, meaning that the Bear Creek Reservoir will not be adequate to serve the four counties’ water needs in the future.

The quarry water supply reservoir is planned for completion in fiscal year 2034. Once completed, it is expected to hold between 4-5 billion gallons of water. The Bear Creek Reservoir holds 4.6 billion gallons of water.

The quarry also provides many benefits when compared to alternatives. The cost per million gallons of water storage was considerably less than the alternatives, while its large size ensures that no additional storage facilities are needed for 100 years. The quarry does not require a dam or flooding of environmentally sensitive habitat. No wetlands, streams, riparian zones, habitat, or other environmentally sensitive areas are affected. 

The quarry is located within Athens-Clarke County and the water stored within it will be under the control of ACCGov. The quarry supports Athens’ Water Recycling Program due to its location along the future recycled water pipeline between the North Oconee Water Reclamation Facility and industrial employment areas. The quarry is also located along the Firefly Trail at Winterville Road and Spring Valley Road, making it a possible future site for a park or similar amenity.

Athens-Clarke County was under Level 4 Drought Response for five months and Level 3 for six months during the 2007-2008 drought. This drought was the worst on record. Based on trends in climate data, Athens-Clarke County will eventually enter a drought that is more severe and lasts longer than the drought of 2007-2008.  

The ACCGov Public Utilities Department started planning for improved water supply resiliency a decade ago to protect against the impacts of severe droughts. In consideration of the time required to develop a raw water supply source, the 2015 Public Utilities Service Delivery Plan approved by the Mayor and Commission included a $20 million project for preliminary engineering and land acquisition of a future reservoir.

The closing on the property is expected to take place prior to the end of the year.

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