Years ago a Georgia planner joked, half seriously, that the Peach State should just “stick a straw” in the Tennessee River to bring water to thirsty Atlanta.
The analogy may turn out to be easier than anyone thought.
Regional cavers are suggesting on their blogs that Georgia take advantage of Tennessee River water backed up years ago by TVA dams into Nickajack Cave and some connected caverns. They say water captured from the Tennessee River flows underground into Georgia and Alabama. If engineers could drill in, then courts might have to decide if the water is groundwater or impounded Tennessee River water.
Tennessee’s Department of Environment and Conservation officials acknowledge the cave drilling idea is a possibility.
There may be a river water connection to cave streams in Georgia, said Tisha Calabrese-Benton, spokeswoman for the department.
“Do we know whether there is a specific place in Georgia where someone could drill and hit an underground lake that existed in some capacity before Nickajack was flooded and is now charged with Tennessee River water? No. But the department believes that moving Tennessee River water out of the Tennessee River watershed would require permission from both TVA and the Army Corps of Engineers,” she said.
Ms. Calabrese-Benton said Tennessee officials believe TVA and the corps would “be protective of the resource in all states.”
TVA spokesman Gil Francis said such a plan almost certainly would involve environmental impact studies, federal reviews known for lengthy delays.
Nickajack Cave is a protected area as the habitat of an endangered species of bat, he said. And even if Georgia could drill to water in a connected underground cave near Nickajack, experts would have to show where the water came from. Even in groundwater, should dye tests or other means show it is Tennessee River water or a river source water, an environmental impact study would have to be conducted to show the impact on the river, he said.
“What they (Georgians) are asking us to do is divert water that goes to Huntsville and many other cities and instead send it to Atlanta,” Mr. Francis said. “We’ve heard a lot of discussion about moving the border, but even if you did, it doesn’t change the watershed. If you transfer water from that watershed, it will affect reservoir elevations and TVA’s abilities to do what it does. And you’re still talking about interbasin transfer.”
In 2000, Tennessee lawmakers passed the Interbasin Water Transfer Act requiring the state to issue permits to any entity moving water out of the Tennessee River watershed, which is the 40,000-square-mile area where rainfall naturally flows ultimately to the river.
Dodd Galbreath, who as a policy planner in the administration of former Gov. Don Sundquist helped push through Tennessee’s interbasin water transfer permitting law, said officials then wrote the law with specific language to account for “conjunctive” relationships or connections between surface and groundwater.
“Any removal of groundwater that results in a reduction of flow in the Tennessee River counts,” Mr. Galbreath said Friday. “We were very careful to regulate the ‘effect’, not just the action.”
Staff Photo by Tim Barber-- Nickajack Cave, located on Nickajack Lake in Marion County, is rich in Civil War history that should be shared,” according to anthropologist Raymond Evans. Once the site of a Confederate saltpeter works, now the cave is known to have one of the country’s largest bat populations.
Mr. Galbreath now is director of Lipscomb University’s Institute for Sustainable Practice.
Dr. Chris Groves, director of Western Kentucky University’s Hoffman Environmental Research Institute that specializes in water resources and cave research, said drilling to a river-filled cave is possible.
“If there is a large passage with Tennessee River water in it, absolutely they could pump a large quantity of water,” he said. “Having a map accurate enough to direct them could be challenging. They have to know where to drill.”
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Bill Peoples said he did not know what mapping had been done in the caves in the area, or if Nickajack Cave even has water-filled connecting caves.
Dade County, Ga., Executive Ben Brandon is very interested in the idea, and said he has heard talk about it before.
Describing himself as “a cheerleader” for the idea of irrigating Georgia with Tennessee River water, Mr. Brandon offered the Times Free Press an 18-page report titled “Tapping the Tennessee River at Georgia’s Northwest Corner.”
“This a compilation of a lot of research from myself and a couple of lawyers and engineers,” he said.
The report, marked “Confidential Water Policy Memorandum” and dated February 2008, presents a history of the Georgia and Tennessee border dispute, legal arguments for relocating the state line to the 35th Parallel and placing an intake pumping station on the river in Nickajack Cove.
“The intake pipe would be submerged out to the main channel of the Tennessee River,” the report states.
Mr. Brandon, who is pushing the water siphon idea as an economic development opportunity for his county, said he and other report writers realized the idea was “too big a project for anybody from Dade County to take on, so what I’ve done is pitch this idea to anybody who would talk to me in Atlanta.”
Dade County doesn’t have water shortage problems, as its water source is Lookout Creek, which drains into the Tennessee River, Mr. Brandon said.
“About a billion gallons of Tennessee River water comes out of North Georgia, so it’s not like Georgia is asking for water that it didn’t contribute. All we’re trying to do is get back a fraction of it,” he said.
Staff Writer Chloe Morrison contributed to this story.
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, ...