DALTON, Ga. -- Asked if Georgia officials would look again at tapping the Tennessee River once the Legislature goes to work in January, one North Georgia lawmaker responded, "I certainly hope so."
Speaking at a legislative panel discussion last week, state Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, and other lawmakers said Georgia and its neighbors need to think regionally about water resources.
"It's something that reasonably minded leaders ought to be able to find a solution to," said state Sen.-elect Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton. "Mutually exclusive prosperity is not an option in the tri-state area."
During the discussion at Dalton State College, the lawmakers said the state has made progress with water conservation efforts over the past year. The Legislature passed the Water Stewardship Act, which ratcheted up water-saving measures across the state. Leaders have indicated that showing willingness to conserve water within the state could help build goodwill in Georgia's 20-year feud with Alabama and Florida over how much water flows through Georgia and into the neighboring states.
Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, said new governors in Georgia, Florida and Alabama could change the direction of the talks.
"I think the biggest thing is that you have new players involved," he said.
Talking to haslam
Neal and others also expressed hopes that new Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam will be more open to talks about granting or selling access to the Tennessee River. In Marion County, Tenn., a bend of the river comes within 200 or 300 feet of the Georgia line.
Campaigning earlier this year, Haslam said he wants open channels of communication with his southern neighbor about water issues. But spokesman Dave Smith said the former Knoxville mayor would "protect our state's precious resources and will fight any attempt to move our border ... or to siphon off our water."
Meadows suggested that if Tennessee doesn't want to negotiate, Georgia could stop the flow of a few north-flowing streams such as Chickamauga Creek or the Toccoa River that flow into the Tennessee basin.
"Let's dam it up and turn it south," Meadows said.
No easy answers
Also last week, members of the state's Joint Committee on Water Supply met at the Capitol, where they heard from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce that other states have been using Georgia's water woes as a talking point to steer potential industries and businesses away from the Peach State.
Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, issued a statement saying the group considered several options, none easy.
"Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for this issue, and it will require a combination of reservoir development, conservation and alternative methods, such as groundwater wells, to achieve an adequate supply," said Tolleson, who is co-chairman of the committee.
He said, however, that accomplishing any of these measures as the state faces a billion-dollar budget deficit will be difficult.
During the meeting, officials with the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission discussed a study of 166 dams that could be raised to add storage capacity. Working to improve storage and gaining access to existing reservoirs -- especially Lake Lanier -- are likely the most important steps, according to lawmakers.
A federal judge has given Georgia until 2012 to solve its water problems before he blocks Atlanta's access to Lake Lanier, the chief water supply for the region.
Meadows is still incredulous over the judge's order.
"You're about to cut off the water supply to Atlanta, Georgia?" the lawmaker asked at the Dalton State panel discussion. "Give me a break."
Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton, said that when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Lake Lanier, documents didn't mention it being used as a water source for Atlanta. The judge's ruling hinged on those documents, and Williams said the papers need to be reworded.
Meadows acknowledged that changing the lake's stated purpose is probably a task for Congress.
"We don't have a lot of controls over the Corps of Engineers at the state level," said Meadows.
Contact staff writer Andy Johns at email@example.com or 423-757-6324.