NASHVILLE — Water will be on Tennessee lawmakers’ minds again this week, but this time the focus won’t be on drought-ravaged Georgia’s effort to tap into the Tennessee River.
Lawmakers are expected to debate the Drinking Water and Resources Planning Act, a bill proponents say should help Tennessee address its own water-scarcity issues.
“We need a systematic planning process for the long-range management of water resources in our state,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, the Senate sponsor. “This bill provides a mechanism to look at our water needs and find solutions.”
The comprehensive water-resource planning measure requires water utilities to draw up strategies for future growth and drought. Water utilities also are directed to look at water conservation.
The Senate and House environment and conservation committees are scheduled to hear the bill Wednesday.
The proposed legislation merges efforts by legislators and water utility district leaders, who want to promote better planning, with Bredesen administration attempts to help communities handle ongoing as well as future droughts, Sen. Berke said.
* Creates a planning process for long-range management of water resources in Tennessee
* Requires water utilities to develop and submit plans on water supply, emergency/drought preparedness and water conservation
* Allows the state to begin water planning on a regional basis
* Creates a revolving fund that eventually would help with local improvements
Proponents say the bill is a consensus of ideas on how to address water issues in a state that serves as home to the Tennessee River, the nation’s fifth-largest river system, yet has serious water problems in areas far from rivers, such as the rapidly developing Cumberland Plateau.
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation attorney Alan Leiserson said the bill requires community water systems serving more than one hundred people to submit plans projecting future water supply and customer needs.
The water supply plan includes maps of the service area and distribution lines. Utility districts would have to provide usage data and project future demand in five-, 15- and 30-year intervals.
Mr. Leiserson said the department’s Division of Water Supply already has requirements covering emergency planning.
“That’s a lot of how we got through the drought last summer and fall as well as we did,” Mr. Leiserson said.
The Chattanooga area and other sections of the state suffered from extreme drought conditions for much of last year. Meteorologist Mary Black with the National Weather Service said rains over the past several months somewhat eased the drought.
The situation went from extreme to severe although problems persist, officials said.
John Hall of the Tennessee Association of Utility Districts, which backs the bill, said water conservation is “something Tennessee’s not looked at much ... but it’s going to pay off long term.”
The bill calls on utilities to develop alternatives such as irrigation or recycling for some water needs. Utilities would be expected to provide public education on conservation.
All the planning information would be used by the state to develop regional plans that encourage water utilities to cooperate and avoid expensive duplication of services, Mr. Leiserson said.
Marion County Mayor Hal Moss said he’s been trying to get that done for years.
Sen. Berke represents Marion County, which includes South Pittsburg where the Tennessee River flows, as well as drought-parched communities such as Orme.
Water utilities that refuse to plan could be hampered in qualifying for federal Community Development Block Grants and state-funded Tennessee FastTrack grants with a total cutoff by 2010.
An estimated 456 public water systems would be affected by the planning bill, according to estimates.
Mr. Leiserson said major water utility districts, larger municipal districts and the privately owned Tennessee-American Water Co., which operates in the Chattanooga area, already do much of the planning that would be required by the bill.
Gov. Bredesen set aside $2.5 million to assist smaller water utilities in planning efforts.
For most of the legislative session, Tennessee lawmakers have been dealing with efforts by officials in Georgia, driven by drought and soaring growth in the Atlanta area, to gain access to the Tennessee River.
Tennessee lawmakers rejected the Georgia legislature’s call for a joint boundary commission to study a border erroneously set in the 19th century.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...