published Sunday, March 10th, 2013

Walker County lawmakers oppose bill to tap Tennessee River

Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, talks during an interview.
Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, talks during an interview.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Georgia's latest legislative proposal to end Atlanta's water woes by tapping the Tennessee River rocketed out of the state House of Representatives in February with 171 yes votes and only two no votes.

Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, was one of the popular proposal's lonely opponents.

"You'd have to get Tennessee to agree to move the state line," Neal said. "If you pump water from there, you've got two mountains to get across."

While Neal's objections didn't slow the bill's trajectory, it's now in a holding pattern in the Senate Rules Committee, whose chairman is another local opponent: Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga.

"I'll be voting no, because I want to maintain a good relationship with my neighbors to the north," Mullis said.

"I'm all for Georgia getting the water," he said. "But I'm all for two neighbors talking to each other. Instead of fighting, we ought to see if we could help each other first."

Rep. Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell, introduced HR 4 to extend Georgia by a 1.5-square-mile strip of land stretching into the middle of Nickajack Lake. He said the Peach State could build a pipeline to deliver up to 1 billion gallons of water per day to thirsty Atlanta and other parts of Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

Geisinger's bill would let Tennessee keep 65.5 square miles of disputed territory, including parts of East Ridge, St. Elmo and Lookout Mountain, along with the roughly 31,000 residents who live there.

The offer is generous, Geisinger said, because if the U.S. Supreme Court ever ruled on the border dispute, he's certain the high court would move Georgia's border north to the 35th parallel. That would leave Tennessee without the land, its residents and its claim to exclusive water rights.

While Geisinger, Neal, and Mullis disagree now, they were on the same page in 2011. Then, Neal and Mullis sponsored separate House and Senate resolutions urging the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to study the feasibility of tapping four North Georgia creeks that flow into the Tennessee and diverting the water south.

"Lookout Creek in Dade County, Chattanooga Creek in Walker County, and West Chickamauga and South Chickamauga creeks in Catoosa County have, by some estimates ... combined average flows of at least 725 million gallons per day," Neal's and Mullis' 2011 legislation states.

Neal said the creeks' flow could be stored in an abandoned Rossville-area rock quarry with a 3 billion- to 4 billion-gallon capacity and then piped along an old railroad right of way to Rome, Ga.

Neal thinks the plan is still feasible.

"We can do that without having to get Tennessee's agreement, approval or consent," he said.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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