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By Cliff Hightower
If development continues on the Cumberland Plateau, regional water planning needs to be in the discussion, several Tennessee environmental groups said.
A study by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation shows more than 188,000 acres can be developed in a five-county region of the southern Cumberlands. The study looked at Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie and Van Buren counties.
"There aren't going to be any new water sources up here," said Jon Evans, director of the Landscape Analysis Lab at The University of the South in Sewanee. "We've reached a tipping point as far as the number of people, and as far as the number of developments."
Marion and Franklin county officials met with water utility districts in both counties two weeks ago and talked about regional water planning. Over the past few months, drought has dried up the reservoir in Monteagle, Tenn., leaving the town without water.
The city has stopped taking new subdivision water customers, officials said. Other communities on the plateau have experienced similar effects.
Mr. Evans and other environmentalists said regional planning and new state regulations on development are the only way to avert future water shortages. Monteagle straddles three counties and deals with two water districts, he said.
"It's a complex web of jurisdictions," he said. "There needs to be something up here that guides growth."
John Emison, spokesman for Citizens for Home Rule Inc., said property rights must be protected whether or not water has run out in certain areas.
"If you start restricting what people can or cannot do with their property, then the property owner should be compensated," he said. "The property owner should not bear the cost of the burden."
Daniel Carter, a consultant for the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, conducted a study of growth in the region as part of a look at how development impacts the area's watersheds.
Mr. Carter, a former consultant with the University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance Service, said he doesn't know whether regional water planning could work because there are no incentives for utilities to join.
"We haven't looked at what is going to be the carrot and the stick on getting it implemented," he said.
Mr. Carter said he supports comprehensive planning that looks at the needs of developments and of residents without water or with low water pressure.
Trip Pollard, the director of land and community planning at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he thinks regional water planning needs a hard look. Any developments built on the plateau also need guidelines restricting water usage, he said.
Making that a condition for hooking up to the water line, as well as offering incentives to developers, could help make water conservation a priority for plateau growth, he said.
"We have a limited resource here and if the experience over the last few months hasn't shown us that, nothing will," he said.
Marion County Mayor Howell Moss said regional planning has been talked about for five years, but has only come to the forefront in the past few weeks. It could happen, he said.
Scott Davis, executive director of the Tennessee chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said that without regional planning, battles over water rights might become the norm.
"We're going to end up in Western-style water war if we're not careful," he said.
E-mail Cliff Hightower at firstname.lastname@example.org