In the tiny community of Sequatchie in Marion County, Tenn., about a dozen families on Dancing Fern Mountain say hauling water from a cave spring about two miles away has become a way of life.
"Most of our wells have dried up or they're sulfur water," said Lea Layne as her husband recently filled a tank in the bed of his pickup.
About 30 miles north atop the Cumberland Plateau, Monteagle's dried-up reservoir has forced J.D. Oliver, owner of the Smokehouse Restaurant, to spend money on outsourcing laundry and on buying paper plates, plastic cups and bottled water. Mr. Oliver fears job cuts may be next.
"We have 70 employees," he said. "They depend on us."
Staff Photo by Meghan Brown Larry Fulfer fills an estimated 250-gallon container with water from the Sequatchie Cave State Natural Area in Sequatchie, Tenn., on Wednesday. The Sequatchie, Tenn., resident is not served by the local water utility and does not have a well, so he pumps water from the cave several times a week to provide for his household.
A sign at an Interstate 24 rest area near Mr. Oliver's landmark eatery reads: "No water."
Twenty miles to the southwest in Orme, Tenn., at the base of the Cumberland Plateau, the town's spring dried up in August, leaving 135 residents with dry faucets, Mayor Tony Reames said.
Now a firetruck from nearby New Hope hauls water every other day to refill the community's water storage tank. Residents there have lived for three months with only three hours of running water a day.
"If you don't have water, you don't have anything," said Mr. Reames, who each evening opens the tank valves long enough for Orme residents to wash, flush and store water for the next day's drinking and cooking.
These residents are among millions in Tennessee and Georgia threatened by the worst regional drought in recorded history. Among concerns:
* The region's year-to-date rainfall deficits range from 15 to 22 inches below normal, lake levels are at all-time lows and wells are running dry.
* Atlanta, with a population of more than 4 million, could run out of water by Dec. 31.
* Dalton, Ga., has a 60-day supply of water remaining, and state officials have mandated restrictions on how much water industry, including the carpet companies, can use.
To combat these issues, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has made disaster declarations for 85 of the state's 159 counties. Also, the state has filed a federal lawsuit demanding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers slow flows of water from North Georgia reservoirs to Alabama and to Florida.
High and dry
With the rest of the year forecast to be warmer and drier than usual, some fear the Southeast is about to become divided into water haves and have-nots.
While Georgia and some Southeast Tennessee communities face severe water shortages, the historic drought has not affected utilities in Hamilton County that draw from the Tennessee River and abundant local reserves of groundwater.
Dalton's problem is finding a new source from outside its watershed to supplement the small Conasauga River, said Don Cope, president and chief executive officer of Dalton Utilities. A small Chattanooga-area water utility, Eastside Utilities, already has an interbasin transfer permit to provide up to about 3 million gallons of Tennessee River water daily to Dalton.
"We don't have enough (water) to support quality of life and a good economy," Mr. Cope said. "So we've got to be looking at can we in fact augment it with water from the Tennessee River and return (treated wastewater) to the Tennessee River. Or can we augment it by desalinating large quantities of water from the Atlantic Ocean."
Randy Gentry, director of the University of Tennessee's Institute for Secure and Sustainable Environment, said leaders will have to broker an agreement for Atlanta to get water from somewhere.
"Could they get it from Tennessee? I don't know. I do know this would not be a good year for sharing water," he said.
Even with regular rains, he said, the Southeast will be years away from recovery.
The drought is "going to put additional pressures on government and state-level folks to begin talking about how regionally we should begin managing our water resource systems," Mr. Gentry said. "This particular year was a wake-up call for Tennessee."
Tennessee, with the fifth-largest river in the nation, lists 83 water utility districts statewide that are in trouble because of the drought, according to a report provided by Tisha Calabrese-Benton of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Seventeen of those utilities have mandatory rationing or restrictions.
Georgia officials have not compiled a list of utilities suffering drought impacts, said Kevin Chambers, communications director with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
TRI-STATE WATER FIGHT
The governors of Georgia, Alabama and Florida are fighting over whether to allow water storage in the Chattahoochee River's Lake Lanier for Atlanta's use or release some of it to benefit endangered species of mussels and sturgeon downstream in Florida and Alabama.
Metropolitan Atlanta receives more than two-thirds of its drinking water from the Chattahoochee River and returns more than 250 million gallons of treated wastewater to the river each day.
The river merges with the Flint River to become the Apalachicola River south of the Georgia-Florida border.
Florida's oyster industry relies on the flow of clean water into Apalachicola Bay, which produces 70 percent of the state's harvest of oysters. Alabama also relies on water from the Chattahoochee to supply drinking water and generate power.
Solutions such as lengthy pipelines are expensive, Mr. Cope said, but the long-term benefits, like those from construction of the nation's interstate highways, can be rewarding.
"The interstate highway system was very costly, and the people who paid for it didn't get to enjoy it very long," he said. "But they left it as a legacy for the future generations, and I think we need to do something like that with regard to the water supply."
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...