published Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Water council talks about Tennessee water

by Andy Johns
Audio clip

Becky Champion

HIAWASSEE, Ga. -- The group responsible for developing a water plan for North Georgia on Wednesday discussed tapping the Tennessee River and blasted estimates of future water demand in the region.

A Tennessee Valley Authority representative told the Coosa-North Georgia Water Planning Council that the federal utility has no "philosophical position against" permitting the council to tap into streams that feed into the Tennessee River. Water drawn from those streams would be sent towards Atlanta.

But TVA Water Supply Program Manager Michael Eiffe also explained that the agency could not allow anything that would conflict with navigation, flood control or hydroelectric generation on the river. The state of Tennessee also would likely have veto power over any permits, he said.

"There's a million issues," Mr. Eiffe explained.

The TVA presentation was intended to update the water council on the status of various reservoirs in North Georgia, but as soon as Mr. Eiffe opened the discussion, council members peppered him with questions about transferring water out of the Tennessee River.

Water Council Chairman John Bennett, of Rome; vice-chairman David Ashburn, of Walker County, and council member Don Cope, of Dalton, all asked about the rules for Tennessee tributaries that originate in Georgia.

"Some of the water in the Tennessee River starts in Georgia," Mr. Cope pointed out.

Mr. Eiffe said the water withdrawal permits would have to be approved by the state where the water sits, not where it flows. He said he knew of no request by Atlanta for a permit to withdraw water from the Tennessee River.

Such a request, he added, could come at any time, or never at all.

"It seems reasonable that that is an option that could be considered," he said.

Council member Jerry Jennings said he had read that the Tennessee River could lose millions of gallons of water and barely notice.

Mr. Eiffe said the answer is complex. The main body of the river would not be affected very much by withdrawals, he said, but tributaries such as Lake Chatuge, visible out the conference room window, could see a significant difference.

"If it's taken out of the system, it's going to have an impact," he added.

Later in the meeting, council members skewered estimates of future agricultural and industrial water use provided by experts. Among other questions, council members were concerned that agriculture figures did not include livestock or poultry, among the region's biggest industries.

"We do have big question marks when we're dealing with agriculture," said Tim Mercier, a Fannin County apple farmer who was one of several members to question the figures.

Council members from Northwest Georgia asked how the water-usage projections accounted for new industry such as Volkswagen or other, unforeseen developments.

At one point, Dalton Mayor David Pennington even questioned the entire purpose of the projections.

"Why is this forecast so important?" he asked. "We don't have a clue."

State officials and council leadership said the criticism was good because it addressed variables that the forecasters may not have known about.

Mr. Ashburn urged members to get their own estimates to help make the final projections more precise.

"Agriculture folks, especially, you're protecting your future," he said.

Dr. Becky Champion, assistant branch chief with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's Department of Natural Resources, said the projections were not be set in stone, but were a best estimate that would be revisited and adapted periodically once the plan is implemented.

"We're not going to be (exactly) right," she said. "It's like a hurricane forecast -- it's a guess."

about Andy Johns...

Andy began working at the Times Free Press in July 2008 as a general assignment reporter before focusing on Northwest Georgia and Georgia politics in May of 2009. Before coming to the Times Free Press, Andy worked for the Anniston Star, the Rome News Tribune and the Campus Carrier at Berry College, where he graduated with a communications degree in 2006. He is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Tennessee ...

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