BLUE RIDGE, Ga. -- The very first suggestion on a North Georgia group's draft plan to solve the region's water supply issues is to look at the Tennessee River.
With a January deadline looming to start collecting public comment, the Coosa-North Georgia Water Planning Council reviewed the first draft of a plan its members have been working on for more than a year.
The plan lists 45 best-management action items, including one that says the state should "evaluate potential partnerships in meeting future water supply needs, including sources such as the Tennessee River."
Georgia officials periodically have mentioned tapping the Tennessee as a source of water for Atlanta, which came frighteningly close to running out of water in a drought during 2006, 2007 and 2008.
To a man, Tennessee leaders have said access to the river is not for sale, and incoming Georgia governor Nathan Deal has said he doesn't think tapping the Tennessee is Georgia's best option.
Georgia has been involved in a dispute with Florida and Alabama for more than 20 years over water quantity and quality in rivers that cross state lines.
The water issues became more desperate in 2009 when a federal judge ruled Atlanta had no right to use Lake Lanier -- the metro area's chief water supply for drinking water.
Mark Marlowe from Dalton Utilities said the plan needs "strong language" about the Tennessee River.
"If you don't look to the future and look at big sources of water ... you may wind up with big shortfalls in places you don't expect shortfalls," he said.
Marlowe suggested the state should appeal to Tennessee as part of the "Super Southeast," with the idea that what's good for Georgia also is good for Tennessee.
"The water doesn't start in Tennessee. It doesn't end in Tennessee. We really need to look at it as a regional asset," he said.
"A TANGIBLE DOCUMENT"
Walker County Coordinator David Ashburn, the council's vice chairman, told the group that in Chattanooga, 36 percent of Tennessee River water comes from Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Ashburn said that even if Georgia doesn't cross the state line, it still could build reservoirs on creeks that run from Georgia north into Tennessee.
"There's a huge amount of water supply that can come from the Georgia side," Ashburn said.
Joe Cook, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, stood at the end of the meeting and criticized the council for looking at interbasin transfers -- pumping water out of one river basin and depositing treated wastewater into another basin.
"The Tennessee River is not our property -- we don't have access to it. It ain't gonna happen," Cook said. "Tennessee is going to say no, and we're going to be in another prolonged water battle."
But council members haven't put all of their eggs in the Tennessee River basket.
The plan also recommends the state consider expanding reservoirs and building new lakes as well as a slew of conservation initiatives.
"This is the first time we've all sat down with a tangible document," said Rick Brownlow, a consultant for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, who led the meeting.
While members were happy to finally see a plan, they critiqued everything from policy items and forecasts to the colors used in pie charts.
Ashburn and several others questioned agricultural water demand forecasts that list Dade, Chattooga and Gilmer counties as using zero gallons of water for crops during the next 40 years.
The consultants who compiled the forecasts said they did so based on data from water departments. They said there wasn't time to talk with agricultural extension agents.
"We're only reporting what we've got," said Doug Baughman, one of the consultants.
Council members also expressed skepticism about the plan's final version.
Ashburn asked if the council would have a chance to review the final version after the state Environmental Protection Division worked its "voodoo" on what the group turned in. Officials with the state said no.
The draft is scheduled to go out for public comment in February, and the final plan to be submitted in June.