Quenching thirst in dry Atlanta

Quenching thirst in dry Atlanta

August 27th, 2009 by Pam Sohn and Andy Johns in News

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis A former Walker County limestone quarry, owned by Leonard Nixon, holds more than three billion gallons of water.

Officials in Georgia say they've really opened the tap in their search for water to serve Atlanta, but a North Georgia man who has spent thousands to convert a quarry into a reservoir says red tape is delaying efforts to get officials to consider his new water source.

Leonard Nixon's former stone quarry in Walker County now holds more than 3 billion gallons of water, he said, but he doesn't want to talk much about his plan to sell water from the quarry.

"We've been working fairly close with the lieutenant governor's office," he said. "There is a lot of politics involved."

The politics involves the slow legal processes for permitting water reservoirs, pumping systems to fill those reservoirs -- or quarries -- and the continuing fights between Georgia and its neighboring states over water rights. Almost anywhere Georgia officials look, their state needs to get water from some other state or tap into water bound for another state.

If a pipe was stuck in the Walker County quarry, the water sent to Atlanta could be replenished from South Chickamauga Creek, Lookout Creek and Chattanooga Creek, said David Ashburn, vice chairman of the Coosa North Georgia Water Planning Council and water coordinator for Walker County.

Those creeks all flow north out of Georgia into Tennessee and the Tennessee River.

The idea of pumping water from creeks bound for Tennessee is a nonstarter for Tennessee officials, who "would explore legal options depending on the circumstances," said Tisha Calabrese-Benton, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Mr. Ashburn said the plan to use the creeks and quarry makes sense, but it may take some of the quarry's leftover mining equipment to burrow through the red tape.

"The bureaucracy is what would hold it back, really," he said.

Should the red tape eventually be cut, the water would flow to Marietta in pipes along rail lines or Interstate 75, he said. But the quarry's present amount -- fed by an underground spring and rainwater -- is enough to provide Atlanta only with 100 million gallons of water a day for 30 days.

"If you're pumping water out by the millions of gallons a day, you're obviously going to have to refill it," Mr. Ashburn said.

Drawing water from creeks that end up in the Tennessee River is irrelevant as long as the water is drawn inside Georgia, said Clay Burdette, program manager of the state's water withdrawal permitting program.

"If Tennessee wants to comment on our permit, that's fine, but I'm not going to go ask Tennessee about our permit," he said.

The argument is an extension of one that began when Georgia officials started eyeing Tennessee River water. Tennessee officials have been quick to point out that the Volunteer State's laws preclude transfers from one watershed to another within state borders.

But Tennessee water experts say Georgia went to the California school of water use -- where officials took it from all directions and the Colorado River. The withdrawals from the Colorado have left it so depleted, it no longer flows into Mexico as it once did.

Mr. Nixon, however, said the three Georgia-Tennessee creeks together "waste 130 millions of gallons a day that flow through Georgia and go into the Tennessee River."

"The Tennessee River would never miss that water," he said.

WATER WOES

Georgia has been battling its neighbors over water supplies for more than two decades.

The record drought in 2007 spurred officials to look deeper into water plans before a judge's decision in July brought the debate to a boiling point. The federal ruling states Atlanta significantly must reduce its dependence on Lake Lanier, which supplies water to about 3 million metro Atlantans.

In light of the decision, Mr. Ashburn said a 100-million-gallon tap into Northwest Georgia definitely would appeal to water planners.

The state has identified 18 or 20 quarries that could be used as a network of reservoirs to store water in case of a drought, he said.

Other water officials said they knew of no such formal list, but acknowledged that quarries have been explored across the state.

Atlanta purchased the Bellwood Quarry inside the city limits in 2006. Mr. Burdette said the city has discussed pumping water from the Chattahoochee River into the pit as a holding tank to use during dry periods. Bellwood would hold 1.9 billion gallons, half of the Walker County quarry's expected capacity, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

The Walker County quarry is 250 feet deep and holds water up to the 220-foot mark, Mr. Nixon said. When full, it could hold 4 billion gallons.

"We have the largest uncovered body of water in the state of Georgia now," he said. "And the interest in the Legislature and governor's office has been to develop a whole lot of reservoirs."

He said he closed the quarry four years ago after operating it for 61 years.

"At that time I felt there was going to be a more valuable entity in water than there was in my crushed stone," he said. "Now I've got it and can't figure out what to do with it."

Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, said he had passed Mr. Nixon's idea on to state decision makers. He said he still favors legal action to allow Atlantans continued access to Lake Lanier, because using existing infrastructure is cheaper than building new systems.

"To send it through a pipeline would cost zillions of dollars," Sen. Mullis said.

Matt Colvin, spokesman for Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, said Mr. Nixon has contacted the office a few times.

"He has not presented any formal plans or permit requests," Mr. Colvin said. "Our office directed him to the proper channels to go through."

One of those channels is the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority.

Beverly McElroy, head of the authority's water division, said she does not know if Mr. Nixon contacted the authority.

In any case, she said, the agency loans money for projects, but only to public entities, not individuals.

Becky Champion, assistant branch chief with the Georgia Environment Protection Division's Department of Natural Resources, said she is not familiar with the quarry, but studies would have to be done to see if could be an adequate reservoir. She said she knows of no requests pending on the matter.

As for pumping from the north-flowing creeks, it could be done only when the water flow is high enough and when there is no drought, she said.

Finding answers

Dodd Galbreath, a former TDEC official who helped write the state's Interbasin Transfer Act to protect the Tennessee River, said there is no easy answer to Georgia's need. But he said pumping creeks would be feasible only during floods -- a process called "harvesting water," he said.

"During flood events is a fairly reasonable approach, but the words 'during flood events' is key," he said. "If there's a drought -- well, when the quarry is sucked dry, it's dry."

Jerry Jennings, chairman of the executive committee for the Northwest Georgia Regional Water Partnership, said no proposal should be dismissed out of hand.

"In light of all that's happened, I think anything should be on the table," Dr. Jennings said.

Mr. Galbreath, now executive director and assistant professor of Lipscomb University's Institute for Sustainable Practice, said Georgia officials are grasping at straws rather than finding viable ways to conserve and force Atlanta to live within its resources.

"A water-harvesting scenario may ultimately just end up delaying a train wreck in Atlanta," he said. "If I were still a Tennessee state policymaker, I'd be doing everything I could to encourage Georgia to conserve. And I'd be scurrying to put into place more tools to protect (Tennessee's) water resources."

WATER WITHDRAWAL COMPARISONS

* 100 million gallons daily -- Amount the Walker County quarry could provide

* 40-65 million gallons daily -- What is withdrawn from the Tennessee River by Tennessee American Water Co. for Chattanooga