Georgia officials, rebuffed by the Tennessee General Assembly in their first attempt to stake a claim on the Tennessee River, say they may launch another legal attack to gain access to the nation’s fifth-biggest river.
But Tennessee officials and water watchers say the Peach State’s attempt to circumvent opposing Volunteer State legislators with end runs at TVA land is likely to leave Georgia high and dry.
Tisha Calabrese-Benton, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said withdrawing river water across TVA land would require approval by Tennessee and federal officials.
“We would apply the state’s interbasin transfer law as written, which would mean a permit would be required for an interbasin transfer of water originating in the state of Tennessee,” she said. “TVA also has a federal interbasin transfer permitting process.”
In the wake of the Tennessee House passage of a resolution opposing Georgia’s call for a border commission to discuss moving the state line so Georgia can grab a riverbank at Nickajack Cove, Georgia state Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, has suggested a settlement to avoid a legal fight headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
He said Tennessee could keep the mile-wide strip between today’s state line and the 35th parallel Congress in 1796 intended to be the border. In return, Georgia would be granted access to the river across a TVA land parcel now separating Dade County, Ga., from the cove.
Sharon Curtis-Flair, spokeswoman with the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, declined comment on the settlement suggestion. Neither would she comment on Georgia’s emerging legal strategy to bypass lawmakers for either TVA’s favor or the promise of a legal fight headed for the Supreme Court.
“We continue to monitor the situation,” she said. “As it stands now, the issue seems to be between the two legislatures, but, as always, we are prepared to defend the interests of the state of Tennessee.”
Bad for the South?
Dodd Galbreath, who helped write Tennessee’s interbasin transfer law requiring permits, said Georgia’s efforts to “circumvent due process” because Atlanta cannot sustain its poorly planned growth are bad for all of the South.
“The state of Georgia is being terribly undiplomatic and is sending signals all over the world that the South cannot manage its resources,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
TVA spokesman Gil Francis agreed with state environmental officials that any transfer of water out of the Tennessee River watershed would require an extensive review under federal environmental standards.
“Interbasin water transfers can affect the river even hundreds of miles away, and TVA has to evaluate any water usage for its impact on navigation, water quality, power generation and recreation,” he said.
Georgia officials have touted a 2004 TVA study that found the Tennessee River potentially could supply up to 264 million gallons a day — triple the average amount used daily by Atlanta last December — without substantially affecting river levels.
That study was not done during a period of drought, Mr. Francis said. And the study itself notes that river levels would be affected adversely by such withdrawals during droughts.
Mr. Francis said 2007 was the driest year in 118 years of records in the Tennessee Valley, and TVA had to suspend operation of its Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant last August because of warm river temperatures.
“It’s important to remember that the watershed flows from Southwest Virginia to Kentucky and not from Chattanooga to Atlanta,” Mr. Francis said.
TVA has granted 13 permits to ship water outside the Tennessee River basin, including four in Georgia, and nine to bring water into the Tennessee River. Collectively, those 22 permits allow utilities and municipalities in the region to divert up to 10.7 million gallons of water a day from the Tennessee River to another watershed. Nearly half of that permitted level, or 5 million gallons a day, is granted to Eastside Utility District for water connections to North Georgia.
TVA President Tom Kilgore said last year he would be reluctant to give any water from the Tennessee River to the Atlanta region.
Sen. Shafer said he will continue to push through the Georgia General Assembly his resolution that would form a border commission to discuss the state boundary with Tennessee officials.
“I remain hopeful Tennessee will engage in a neighborly discussion about the resolution of this matter,” he said.
In the meantime, he said, he plans to bolster his resolution with additional historical and legal citations of Georgia disputing the marked border that he became aware of since the introduction of the measure.
Tennessee Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said it simply is not going to happen.
Georgia “seems to feel that even if I keep my possessions in my house that they can just reach in and grab them and pull them out,” he said. “It’s not the law, and it will never be the law, and we will fight to make sure that never happens.”
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, called Georgia’s continued effort “almost a joke.”
“It’s almost like, ‘We didn’t win on this front; let’s move on to the next one.’”
A Senate version of the Tennessee House-passed resolution opposing Georgia’s call for a border commission is expected to come before the Senate State and Local Government Committee next week. Sen. Berke is handling the Senate measure.
“We’ll pass it,” said Lt. Gov. Ramsey, who is the Senate speaker.
Staff writer Andy Sher 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, ...