High-water mark

After three years of drought, the Tennessee Valley is as flush with water as it has ever been at this time of the year.

Even after 70 days of spilling water through its dams to reduce the level of reservoirs, TVA still began the new year with more water stored in reservoirs above Chattanooga than at the end of any previous year since TVA erected its network of dams in the 1930s and 1940s.

In the Tennessee River, an extra 45 billion gallons of water is flowing through Chattanooga every day above the minimum flow requirement - or as much water every day as what Atlanta uses from its main reservoir, Lake Lanier, in six months.

The extra flow has raised river levels, stalled some barges and reignited interest among some Georgians interested in tapping into the Tennessee River to help supply future water needs.

BY THE NUMBERS* 62.59 inches: Total rainfall in Chattanooga in 2009, or 8.07 inches above normal* 55.95 inches: Total rainfall in the Tennessee River watershed above Chattanooga, or 12 percent above normal* 47.33 inches: Total rainfall in Chattanooga in 2008, or 6.86 inches below normal* 73.3 inches: Total rainfall in the wettest year in Chattanooga in 1994.* 65.77 inches: Total rainfall in 2003, the last year with comparable rainfall to that in 2009Sources: National Weather Service, Tennessee Valley Authority

"We've got lots of water we're trying to move through our system," said Chuck Bach, general manager for river scheduling for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates a network of 49 dams for flood control in the region. "We try to bring our reservoirs down to their lowest levels ... by the first of January, but that has been a challenge this year because of all of the extra rain we have received."

In 2009, nearly 62.59 inches of rain fell on Chattanooga, or 8.07 inches more than normal, according to the National Weather Service. Last year's precipitation total was up by more than 15 inches from the previous year, making 2009 the wettest in Chattanooga since 2003 and the 17th wettest in the 160 years for which comparable data is available.

TVA is spilling water this week through all of its Tennessee River dams except its Wilson and Wheeler Dams, although the flow rate has been reduced from last week. As a result, barge operators who had to halt some shipments are again plying the Tennessee River.

Barge operations are suspended when the flow of the river exceeds 90,000 cubic feet per second through the Tennessee River Gorge, where the river narrows. With such flows, the river current becomes too strong to safely navigate, according to river regulators and operators.

"There have been some delays because of the river flow in recent weeks, but there's been a good working relationship between TVA, the (Army) Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard, along with industry, to keep the river in use as much as possible and to avoid any incidents of collisions or injuries," said Clive Jones, executive director for the Tennessee River Valley Association in Decatur, Ala.

More than 50 million tons of cargo is shipped by barge every year along the Tennessee River. But the high water did require some barges to temporarily park in Chattanooga this fall, Mr. Jones said.

interstate battle

That "extra" water could be used in Georgia, according to the leaders on one of the water councils created in Georgia to study that state's water supply problems, which were aggravated by the drought in recent years.

"It's a shame you can't capture the excess water during these times of heavy rains and reserve it for hard times next August or whenever there may next be a shortage of water," said John Bennett, city manager in Rome, Ga., and chairman of the 25-county Coosa/Northwest Georgia Water Planning Council.

"I think eventually there will be some additional reservoirs built in North Georgia," he said. "Certainly in other parts of the country, water is moved a lot further than what we are talking about moving water from the Tennessee River into North Georgia."

Tennessee legislators have balked at giving up water from the Tennessee River.

Rep. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said there is a reason the river carries the name "Tennessee." Rep. Bell said recently that giving away its water is "not negotiable."

But Walker County Coordinator David Ashburn, vice chairman of the Northwest Georgia Water Council, said runoff from at least a half dozen Georgia counties flows into the Tennessee River and the river needs to be considered a part of the solution to the South's water problems.

"When you hear people say to Georgia, "Leave our water alone," they need to remember that Georgia already supplies much of what is in that river to start with," Mr. Ashburn said. "You can take water out of the Tennessee and in no way affect the flow and uses of that river."

hydro generation

With all the water spilling through its dams, TVA is generating its cheapest power using its 29 hydroelectric dams around the clock, boosting hydro generation above normal for the first time in more than three years.

TVA is losing some of the potential hydro capacity because it lacks enough hydro units to capture all of the water moving through its dams, officials said.

Mr. Bach said TVA has looked at adding more generation capacity in the past and determined that it would cost too much for the limited times when such additional production could be tapped.

"This type of situation is far more the exception than the rule," he said. "We have looked at that, but it didn't make sense."

Mr. Bach, who has headed river operations for three years, opened most of the floodgates in the river this fall for the first time.

"It's fun now to be able to go out and talk with people about having water we have to deal with rather than just talking about the drought all the time," he said. "We weren't very popular during the drought."

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