Randy Gentry - Download MP3-
Last of two parts.
By Pam Sohn and Herman Wang
The current drought parching the Southeast has community officials thirsting for pipelines flowing from the Tennessee River. But that would require new laws in Tennessee and Georgia, and possibly Congress, according to water experts.
"That's certainly not as easy as it may have once been," Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said.
The mayor said municipal leaders from Birmingham, Ala., and other cities told him they would love to have a water source like the Tennessee River, but substantial legislative hurdles would have to be overcome prior to any transfer.
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Randy Gentry, director of the University of Tennessee's Institute for Secure and Sustainable Environment, said conversations about interbasin transfer -- the movement of water from one watershed to another -- are starting again.
"I am sure there has probably been some preliminary conversation, but it would be at the governor level," Mr. Gentry said.
For now, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said he is focusing on keeping more of Georgia's water "and not have the Corps of Engineers send it down river" to other states. Gov. Perdue said while many have suggested trying to tap the Tennessee River, "there has been no substantive discussions" at this time on such a water transfer. Meanwhile, Georgia instituted conservation measures and embarked on talks with Alabama and Florida officials to negotiate river releases that have lowered Atlanta's pumping capacity.
But frustration over empty wells, dry springs and mud-cracked reservoirs continues to build across the Southeast, and utilities across the region are exploring ways to limit current consumption and get more water for their future.
Monteagle, Tenn., and its 1,200 water customers are spending $50,000 more each month to buy water.
"Our long-range plan is to tie to the South Pittsburg" water system which draws from the Tennessee River, said Monteagle Mayor Charles Rollins. "I think it will take $5 million or $6 million to tie on to their project, but it will give us the capacity for future developments here."
Although Monteagle is on the plateau, it does slope within the Tennessee River watershed, meaning officials have at least one less hurdle to obtain water. Two other parched regional towns, Cullman, Ala., and Dalton, Ga., slope into different watersheds.
A watershed is the land area draining into a stream, river or river system.
In Dalton, Eastside Utility workers from Hamilton County are scrambling to lay larger lines to the Carpet Capital to send water from the Tennessee River across the state line -- about 3 million gallons a day.
Officials in Cullman, which is now operating under a mandatory water conservation plan, are proposing to spend $117 million to pipe 30 million gallons of water a day from the Tennessee River. The application for the water transfer is pending.
Staff Photo by Meghan Brown
The Tennessee River flows from Nickajack Lake near South Pittsburg, Tenn.
In other Southeast towns, bids are being reviewed to lay water pipe from nearby communities and even private lakes to lend emergency help.
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Jackson suggested the region explore piping in water from the Tennessee or Savannah rivers, according to The Associated Press.
"We need to look beyond our borders," she said.
To date, no city officials from Atlanta have sought to extend a pipe to the Tennessee River, Mr. Littlefield said.
Todd Edwards, associate legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said Atlanta water discussions almost always bring questions of interbasin transfers.
Mr. Edwards said Georgia state law, like Tennessee law, places still more hurdles in front of a water pipeline from the Tennessee River to Atlanta.
Georgia law prevents water transfers into the metropolitan Atlanta water district, the 16 counties making up Metro Atlanta, even from other parts of the state. The northernmost county of Metro Atlanta is Bartow County, he said. That means both states' law, as currently written, would seem to forbid a Tennessee River pipeline to Metro Atlanta.
Dodd Galbreath, an architect of Tennessee's interbasin water transfer law, led passage of the legislation to protect Tennessee's 652-mile resource from thirsty neighboring states when he served in the administration of former Republican Gov. Don Sundquist.
Now the director of Lipscomb University's Institute for Sustainable Practice, Mr. Galbreath said there is no simple answer for serving growing water needs, but there should not be hasty reaction.
"Atlanta's in a real fix," he said, noting the city has followed the example of Los Angeles which tapped all the water resources it could from states far away and pulled them to the city. "That is an unsustainable model," he said.
A better plan is thoughtful technology to use "water harvesting," catching flood and especially storm-water runoff and storing it for future drought times.
"If you don't manage storm water, you make your droughts longer and your floods deeper," he said. "Every raindrop that hits a roof and runs off is flood water somebody has to pay to divert."
Still, Mr. Gentry, a groundwater hydrology researcher at UT, thinks the proposal to pipe Tennessee River water to Atlanta should be studied. But his favorite option is a more rigorous rationing system and a new emergency reallocation plan to hold more water upstream for Atlanta during drought times rather than allowing so much to flow downstream to protect the health of aquatic creatures in Apalachicola Bay. Florida and Alabama officials argue those creatures hold the key those states' profitable oyster harvests and tourism development.
Interbasin transfers rare
Tennessee River regulators have said their concern is not that the river might dry up, but that too much water withdrawn and not returned could inhibit the river's ability to clean itself and continue to provide ample resources for drinking, recreation, industrial needs and power production.
"Most people look at the Tennessee River as water rich, and in most years it is," said Gene Gibson, manager of water supply for the Tennessee Valley Authority. "But in a drought year like this one, you don't have a surplus of water, and if you take water out of one part of the river the impact is often felt by others hundreds of miles upstream."
Most of the water withdrawn from the Tennessee River for drinking supplies, irrigation and industrial use returns to the river after municipal sewage or septic tank cleanup. In its seven-year interbasin permitting program's history, Tennessee has issued seven permits for water transfers from the Tennessee River system to other watersheds.
Collectively, the permits allow only 9.4 million gallons of water a day to be transferred from one watershed to another, a fraction of the 5.8 billion gallons that are now flowing each day in the Tennessee River through Chattanooga.
Both Eastside Utility District Manager Don Stafford and Tennessee-American Water Co. Manager John Watson said their utilities do not have the permit capacity or infrastructure to move any more water to Atlanta or anywhere else in North Georgia.
"We're not big enough to do it," Mr. Stafford said. "And it would take 20 years to get a line laid to Atlanta.
Tennessee-American's pumping capacity is 60 million gallons a day, and during the drought the utility already has been pumping 55 million gallons a day to the customers served in the Chattanooga area, officials said.
Staff Writer Dave Flessner contributed to this story.
E-mail Pam Sohn at email@example.com