Time and the river roll on, but so do needs and threats

Time and the river roll on, but so do needs and threats

June 22nd, 2014 in Opinion Times

So much water; so little time and effort to save it.

Rivers are our lifeblood. And the Tennessee River is a mighty life giver. At 652 miles long, she flows southwest from Knoxville through Chattanooga and on to Huntsville, Ala., before turning on her heels to dart through a corner of Mississippi and head north to Paducah, Ky. There she spills into the Ohio River and in just a few miles her water is rolling south again as part of the Gulf-bound Mississippi River.

But she completely misses Georgia - by a mile and a fluke of historical fate.

In 1826, land surveyors using rudimentary tools and stargazing set the Tennessee-Georgia border one mile further south of the mark Congress decreed. The result cheated Georgia out of access to the river. Now Georgia lawmakers want to move the state line and pipe away hundreds of millions of gallons a day from the natural watershed basin that geology - not mapmakers - made for the Tennessee River.

The patch of land that Georgia's Legislature says it will settle for without a lawsuit is a grassy stand just across Georgia's northwest border near what we know as Nickajack Cave. Few live nearby, but about 85 folks are buried there in State Line Cemetery - so named for the point that joins the borders of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.

So far, nothing has happened save the laughter of a few Tennessee lawmakers. A few months ago, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Greg Bluestein summed up Gov. Nathan Deal's position: Georgia has enough water-related headaches already with two other long-running court fights against Alabama and Florida, so the state is not about to open another water war front against Tennessee.

That's good news for the Volunteer State, but tomorrow is another day.

The Colorado River once flowed from the Rockies into Mexico and then to the Gulf of California. Now, after being diverted hundreds of miles outside its natural basin to Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and other fast-growing cities and thirsty deserts converted to croplands, 70 percent of the Colorado's water is siphoned away.

What was once a lush delta in Mexico where the river joined the ocean is now arid.

Picture a stream in your backyard that starts from a spring two houses up the street from you and ends in a lake two houses down from you. You and your four neighbors are a basin, or as hydrologists term it, a watershed.

But the neighbor just upstream from you decides to build a koi pond and divert water from the stream. He lets the excess water from the pond run to his garden. Any trickles left flow into the sewer drain. Suddenly the stream in your yard is much diminished. And by the time it reaches the neighbor's lake on the other side of you - the downstream side - it can no longer keep the lake filled except in times of very heavy rain.

Your upstream neighbor's drain is moving water out of your basin and not returning any leftovers.

The Tennessee River is the nation's fifth largest river system with a nearly 41,000-square-mile drainage area.

Diverting water from the Tennessee at Nickajack Lake and sending it to Atlanta would be like the neighbor's koi pond that overflows to the sewer. The water - even as wastewater, treated or untreated - never comes back to recharge the stream.

Even within its own "basin," the Tennessee River in dozens of ways serves 4.5 million people - an increase in population of about 15 percent since 1990, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report.

In 2005, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the USGS determined that total water withdrawals that year averaged 12,437 million gallons per day. About 96 percent was returned to the river.

Estimates now indicate metro Atlanta and North Georgia would need at least 264 million gallons a day just to make up expected 2030 "net deficits" in the Chattahoochee and Coosa river basins that now serve them.

Why so much? Because Atlanta is one of the few cities on the continent that was not built on a river or water source that could sustain it. And it keeps growing, but not dealing with that growth in any durable way.

Chattanoogans on average use 95 gallons of water per person per day, according to Tennessee American Water Co. In Atlanta, that per-person number is 151 gallons a day, according to Georgia's Environmental Protection Department. And that's despite summer watering bans and public appeals for conservation.

Last year's Peach State bill to get Tennessee River water - the 10th in about as many years - differs from previous ones in that it wouldn't move the entire state line, just that 1.5-square-mile strip of it near Nickajack Cave.

The great pity of all this is that we - all of us in any state and on any waterway - haven't quite figured out how to save the billions of gallons of flood waters that simply flow away through and out of our reservoirs when heavy rains blanket the Southeast seasonally. We need second cups for storage when our first cups runneth over.

With growing populations and expected increases in temperatures in the coming decades, water will be the new gold. We need to plan now to conserve it.