Tennesseans should be mightily upset that Gov. Bill Haslam has expressed willingness to discuss the possibility of allowing the transfer of some water from the Tennessee River into Georgia. There is nothing to be gained by such a discussion with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, and much to be lost. Any additional transfer of water out of the Tennessee River Basin would be detrimental to the health of the river — as well as a disservice to the people and businesses in the basin. It would set a bad legal precedent.
Whether the transfer of water would be good for the river and for those served by it doesn’t seem to concern Georgia’s political leaders. They are greedy and driven by self-interest in the matter.
They’ll do almost anything — except, apparently, to implement useful growth controls or establish tough conservation rules — to obtain the water the state needs to sustain growth in metropolitan Atlanta and elsewhere.
History proves such expedience is nothing new. Science explains why any attempt by Georgia to gain access to the Tennessee River should be rebuffed.
Talk, but no action
For decades, Atlanta used Lake Lanier as a mostly private reservoir. Never mind that doing so effectively reduced the volume of flow of the Chattahoochee River water available downstream to both Florida and Alabama. Georgia talked about equity on the issue for years, but never took action to provide it.
Ultimately, Florida and Alabama tired of the stall and took their cases to court. They won. Georgia, by federal decree, will have to send a fair share of Lanier’s waters downstream starting next year.
Taking what should be shared water as their own isn’t the only gambit that Georgia has employed in seeking an easy way to ease the state’s water woes. Peach State officials have made it plain at various times in recent years that they’d happily tap into the Tennessee River near Chattanooga to expand Atlanta’s water supply.
It was, they claimed, quite a simple matter to do so. All it would take would be a shift of the current state border a mile or so north. History was on their side, they said. A surveying error years ago had incorrectly put the dividing line at its current site. What wishful thinking.
That idea might have been popular in Georgia political circles, but it understandably found no traction in Tennessee. Despite veiled hints of lawsuits and other action, Tennessee officials refused to bend. Their Georgia counterparts, including then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, were forced to concede that long-standing precedent doomed their thinly veiled land-grab.
As a result, the state finally initiated a broad effort to develop useful conservation and growth control plans and to design and build a reservoir-storage system to help meet Georgia’s projected water needs. The effort has not been especially successful.
The looming deadline imposed by the federal courts involving Lake Lanier and the continuing drought and growth-exacerbated demand for water have proved that Atlanta and Georgia waited too long to take such action. Georgia needs water — and needs it much sooner than any efforts initiated by the state likely can provide.
That is without doubt why Deal said last week that he was interested in talking about water issues with Tennessee officials. Of course, he is. The governor’s got nothing to lose, but a lot to gain.
The millions who depend directly or indirectly on the river for water, however, have a lot at risk. Any deal that would permit the transfer of water out of the basin is environmentally unsound and ecologically dangerous. That includes a current proposal that would swap Tennessee water for Georgia transportation improvements. To reduce or eliminate the threat to the river, stakeholders should insist that current state and federal laws that govern and protect the river and its water remain intact or be strengthened.
Georgia officials imply there’s no problem and no need to become defensive. They have been quick to note that an average of about 5 billion gallons of water flow past Chattanooga daily. They claim that is sufficient to allow the removal of several million gallons a day — just the amount to help ease Georgia’s woes. They are wrong.
Removing that much water in normal conditions would disrupt the delicate mechanisms that allow the river to meet flow, storage and ecological requirements along its nearly 700-mile course and in the vast basin it serves. Doing so in dry periods or in drought — scientists generally concur we are entering one of those cycles now — would be disastrous.
The river requires a certain volume, called “dead storage,” to allow for navigation between reservoirs behind Tennessee’s dams. There has to be adequate flow volume, as well, to maintain oxygen levels high enough for the river to carry the increasingly high levels of sewage and pollution dumped into it. Increasingly that’s a problem, even in the best conditions. In time of drought, low water leads to excessive and extremely dangerous levels of sewage and pollution. That’s unacceptable for a waterway that is the state’s most valuable natural resource and a key component of its economy.
Interbasin transfers of the sort sought by Georgia in the past — and likely to be on the agenda if Deal can convince Haslam to talk about a water swap — are a clear danger to the river and to those who live and work along its course, on its many tributaries or in the basin it drains.
There’s no reason for the Tennessee governor to humor his Georgia counterpart. If Deal comes calling with the Tennessee River on his mind, Haslam should tell him forthrightly that Tennessee’s answer — now and always to any request for a swap or other arrangement that would allow the transfer of water out of the river’s watershed — is “no!”