By Dave Flessner
Built around America's fifth largest river, Chattanooga has plenty of water amid one of the worst droughts ever confronted in the Southeast.
As Georgia ordered reductions in water use to preserve dwindling supplies, the water utilities that tap into the Tennessee River in Chattanooga are pumping all the water their consumers need.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said mayors and municipal officials in Atlanta, Birmingham and other cities have told him they would love to have an asset such as the Tennessee River.
"The drought has amplified and underscored the advantages we enjoy by the grace of God and the Tennessee River," Mr. Littlefield said. "Every time we talk to an industrial prospect, we certainly point out the availability of generous volumes of water in and around Chattanooga. Most of the prospects that have looked at Enterprise South -- and are still looking at Enterprise South -- have taken that into consideration."
The Enterprise South industrial park can be served by either the Tennessee-American Water Co. or the Eastside Utility District with filtered water from the nearby Tennessee River. In May 2006, the Tennessee Valley Authority and its consultants designated Enterprise South as one of the region's premiere "mega sites" for industry.
So far, however, the 1,600-acre facility has yet to attract any new manufacturers to Chattanooga, although it does house three growing, local businesses.
Local economic development officials say they hope to capitalize on Chattanooga's liquid assets to draw new prospects to Enterprise South and lure new businesses and residents to other local industrial and residential sites.
THE FLOW OF JOBS
The U.S. Bureau of Census projects the population of metropolitan Atlanta will double in the next 25 years, putting even more strain on water supplies in one of the nation's biggest cities not located on a major river.
Water-intensive businesses wishing to locate in the region and avoid potential water shortages elsewhere in the Southeast are prime targets for Chattanooga's business recruitment effort, according to those involved in the "Chattanooga Can Do" campaign.
"The abundance of water is a tremendous advantage for Chattanooga," said J.Ed. Marston, marketing director for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. "Water is critical for many business operations, especially in industries like food processing."
McKee Foods Corp., the maker of Little Debbie Snacks and Hamilton County's largest manufacturing employer, is the biggest customer of Eastside Utility District and uses water for both its cooking operations and maintenance of its Collegedale facilities, according to Mike Gloekler, the company's manager of corporate communications.
"McKee Foods is grateful to have access to Southeast Tennessee's plentiful natural resources, which are continuing to provide water despite the region's ongoing drought," Mr. Gloekler said in an e-mail statement. "Access to clean, abundant water is critical for us as a food manufacturer."
Manufacturers such as Alstom Power Co. also use significant water supplies for cooling in their production process. But like most businesses, Alstom has upgraded its production to generate more products using less water and energy. Alstom's production of power plant and paper pulp pipes and equipment is expected to use about 20 million gallons of water this year.
"That's only half of what we used a couple of years ago," said David Breckinridge, general manager for Alstom.
As businesses have improved their water conservation programs to cut costs, consumption of water from Tennessee-American has remained below its peak levels reached in the 1970s. On a typical day before the drought, Tennessee-American sold about 38 million gallons of water, using only about half of the utility's 60 million-gallon-a-day capacity plant.
Mr. Breckinridge said Alstom also uses the Tennessee River as a low-cost means of shipping its products around the world.
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
Since the Tennessee Valley Authority harnessed the Tennessee River with its network of 49 dams built in the 1930s and '40s, Chattanooga gained both flood control and a navigable river.
Every day 5.8 billion gallons of water flow through Chattanooga via the river. This area is the drainage point for most of the runoff from streams and creeks in East Tennessee and parts of North Georgia, Western North Carolina and Western Virginia.
Ray Childers, president of the Chattanooga Manufacturers Association, said the abundance of water in Chattanooga long has been a key asset for the city.
"The river has been an advantage to locating manufacturing for more than 100 years and is one of the main reasons that Chattanooga became the 'Dynamo of Dixie,' " Mr. Childers said. "Even more so today, I think that is a huge advantage going forward, especially when you see what happening in North Georgia."
Mr. Littlefield said Chattanooga "has cleaned up its act" to limit both the air and water pollution caused by many manufacturers in the past and is poised for new, cleaner growth.
Mark Arend, editor of Site Selection magazine, said businesses are taking a closer look at the availability of water as supplies tighten in some regions.
"It's becoming more important in where businesses locate," he said. "It obviously doesn't matter much to a call center operation. But it would matter to a food processor."
Despite Chattanooga's water advantages, however, one major water user did choose a North Georgia site over Chattanooga in the early 1990s. After considering sites in Chattanooga, Anheuser-Busch built a $600 million Budweiser brewery in Cartersville, Ga., in 1993 capable of producing up to 8 million barrels of beer a year.
The world's biggest beer producer determined that the Cartersville brewery built along Interstate 75 was better located to serve metropolitan Atlanta and other Southeastern markets than the proposed Chattanooga site would have been.
Steve McDaniel, plant manager for Budweiser brewery in Cartersville, said the plant has boosted beer production by 15 percent in the past five years while still cutting its total water usage. But he conceded that the current drought "is a very serious situation" for water-dependent businesses in North Georgia.
"I wonder if they are having second thoughts down in Cartersville now?" Mr. Littlefield asked. "I think if we were faced with that opportunity again today, the decision would have been quite different."
E-mail Dave Flessner at email@example.com