NASHVILLE—A crack appears to be opening in Tennessee’s previously solid dam of opposition to letting some Tennessee River water flow into Georgia.
But whether it turns into a stream of water directed into Tennessee’s increasingly thirsty neighbor remains to be seen.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s spokeswoman Yvette Martinez indicated Thursday the governor would not summarily reject overtures from Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal that the two states work out a trade of Volunteer State water for Peachtree State transportation improvements.
“We are relying on our [environmental] experts ... to continue to monitor the issue in terms of what is in the best interest of Tennessee,” Martinez said by email. “Governor Haslam has said that he is open to sitting down and discussing the issue with Governor Deal.”
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Haslam seemingly threw a wet blanket on the idea, which was first floated by Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who said Georgia officials would be interested in swapping better access to Hartsfield-Jackson International and Savannah’s port to exchange for Tennessee water.
“I think that was one legislator who presented that idea,” Haslam said. “I haven’t heard that from the governor of Georgia at all, who I do see and talk to on a fairly regular basis. And he hasn’t ever mentioned it to me.”
In a radio interview this week, Deal said he was interested in discussing the water/transportation trade.
“Rapid rail access from Atlanta to the Chattanooga airport is of great interest to the people of Tennessee,” Deal told the station. “Sometimes there are things we’re interested in and things they’re interested in, and if we can negotiate some agreements in the future, that would probably be very good.”
It was unclear exactly what Deal is suggesting with regard to rapid rail access and Deal’s press office had no immediate response to questions about what the governor’s specific proposals. The two states have long discussed developing high-speed rail connections between Chattanooga and Atlanta, initially estimated at about $4 billion. But a number of states have moved ahead of Tennessee and Georgia in planning and qualifying for federal dollars aimed to promoting high-speed rail.
Georgia officials’ latest overtures mark a possible departure from stick-to-carrot in their effort to divert Tennessee River water into a rapidly growing state where Atlanta and other areas face increasing water scarcity. During their annual session earlier this year, Georgia lawmakers approved a study to see if the state can legally take water from parts of the Tennessee River basin within Georgia — primarily Lookout, Chattanooga, South Chickamauga and West Chickamauga creeks — for use in Atlanta.
In 2008, Georgia lawmakers sought to get Tennessee to join them in convening a joint boundary commission to examine the Tennessee-Georgia border, which has been in dispute since an 1818 survey. Georgia officials said the stateline should be moved north by an additional mile into Tennessee, taking in portions of Chattanooga and East Ridge — and a section of the Tennessee River. Tennessee lawmakers responded with sneers and ridicule and angry Georgia lawmakers later threatened to sue.
However the deal is discussed, Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, isn’t so sure about sending the water south.
“If everyone is agreeable to sit down and discuss it, I think that’s being open-minded about the issue,” Dean said. “Whether or not we’re willing to negotiate anything is a totally different matter.
“We need to be very cautious before we do anything that would cause harm to any of our citizens,” Dean said. “You take care of home first ... then you branch out with your good will.”
The Tennessee River Valley Association, which represents river users including barge operators and industry in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky, is resisting any water going to Georgia.
On May 25, the group passed a stinging resolution firmly opposing inter-basin water transfers from the Tennessee River. The transfers could have an adverse affect on the Tennessee River, the group says, including the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which connects the Tennessee River and inland Mississippi and Alabama with the Gulf of Mexico.
The group urges governors from all four states as well as their congressional delegations “to support measures to prevent efforts by the State of Georgia to divert water away from the Tennessee River Basin to other parts of Georgia.”
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, ...