NASHVILLE — Some Tennessee lawmakers want to lead local governments and utilities to water and make them think.
Cities, counties and water utility districts would be required to plan for future water needs and develop ways to assist unserved areas under a bill moving in the General Assembly.
The water-management measure’s primary sponsor, Rep. Mike McDonald, D-Portland, said the historic drought gripping the South as well as a desire to provide public water access to about 112,000 Tennessee families now reliant on sources such as creeks or wells prompted the proposed legislation.
“Tennessee has abundant water resources all across the state, but not all Tennesseans have access to that water,” Rep. McDonald said of the state, which is home to the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.
“The legislation does adequate planning statewide to determine where water resources exist, where public water lines are located and where the unserved and underserved areas are across the state, and then figure out the best way to get public water to people who don’t have it,” said Rep. McDonald, who cited the water-parched Cumberland Plateau as an example.
He said most Southeastern states require planning. Georgia lawmakers recently passed water resources management legislation, and Gov. Sonny Perdue has signed it.
The bill also creates a drinking and water resources fund to provide financial assistance for public water system improvement projects. Rep. McDonald said the bill provides for no specific appropriation, although a similar program in Kentucky started with $50 million.
Tennessee’s proposed Drinking Water Access and Resources Planning Act of 2008 has a roster of powerful House sponsors, including Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington. The Senate’s primary sponsor is Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle, of Memphis.
The bill moved through the House Conservation and Environment Committee last week and will be in the House Government Operations Committee on Wednesday. The bill has yet to move in the Senate.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, whose district includes Marion County where there have been water shortages primarily along the Cumberland Plateau, said that although he hasn’t seen the bill, he agrees more planning and help for local communities is necessary.
“Three months ago, they were mowing the lake in Monteagle,” said Sen. Berke, referring to a well-publicized situation last fall where workers mowed grass growing in the town’s dry Laurel Lake reservoir. “If we do not take action to plan for appropriate water use management, we can expect scenarios like that more often around our state.”
The bill comes at a time when public attention remains focused on drought-related woes. Less than two weeks ago, water-desperate Georgia lawmakers drew hoots of derision from their Tennessee counterparts when they introduced legislation aimed at moving the Peachtree State’s border a mile north into Tennessee.
The purpose was to snatch a section of the Tennessee River flowing through Marion County. Georgia officials maintain the border was improperly surveyed in 1818.
In Tennessee, Gov. Phil Bredesen, whose budget provides $2 million for water management planning, possibly is preparing his own water-planning legislation.
In an e-mail, state Environment and Conservation spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton noted the $2 million along with $500,000 in unspent funds from last year will fund regional water plans, under the direction of Environment and Conservation, “to benefit those areas of Tennessee most impacted by inadequate water sources.”
Rep. McDonald said the administration’s chief lobbyist, Pat Miller, assured him the administration is not trying to block Democratic leaders’ bill and wants to work with them.
John Watson, president of Tennessee-American Water Co., a private utility that serves Chattanooga and parts of several nearby counties, said the company’s own planning has proved beneficial and welcomes a statewide planning process.
But Mr. Watson, who addressed Hamilton County legislators at a meeting last week, said he would like to know if Tennessee-American as a private utility would have a seat at the table of the local county council envisioned by the bill.
Rep. McDonald said he didn’t see why the company wouldn’t be involved.
John Hall, a special programs manager with the Tennessee Association of Utility Districts, said in some areas of the state, a county may have one water utility district with a ready water supply while another faces major problems.
“It’s hard for people living in Chattanooga to understand that there is still a critical drought gripping the state of Tennessee,” Mr. Hall said.
What it means
The Drinking Water Access and Resources Planning Act of 2008 would:
* Establish a water-management planning council in each county or allow counties to join together in a district. Members would include representatives of the county, cities and water utilities.
* Require each district to have, by Dec. 31, 2009, maps showing existing waterlines and service areas, unserved and underserved areas and which public water system should make extensions to provide service.
* Create a drinking water access and resources fund that would provide financial assistance to help public water systems with improvement projects.
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, ...