Residents of Tennessee who understandably get nervous any time anyone in an official capacity in Georgia talks about water and the Tennessee River in the same breath should take note of the final draft of North Georgia's new water plan. The document calls for the state to "explore opportunities for Georgia to expand use of the Tennessee River as a water supply source." It's not the first time that officials have suggested that one way to ameliorate Georgia's water woes is to tap into the Tennessee. Earlier talk about doing so was vigorously opposed. The current effort deserves even more forceful opposition.
Members of the Coosa-North Georgia Water Planning Council clearly expect such opposition. Still, they met Wednesday to make it plain that they still view the Tennessee River as a regional resource. Those north of the Tennessee-Georgia border would not put it so politely. They would view the river as a target of opportunity for Georgia. That opinion has merit.
Indeed, the final draft acknowledges as much. It acknowledges "potential legal issues" that the two states would have to work out, but also says that the authors of the plan would like future planning efforts to address this alternative source "in more detail." There's little to address. The Georgia group's plan acknowledges that an interbasin transfer of water out of the Tennessee River's watershed is not tenable because such a transfer would not be returned to the Tennessee River.
Tennessee officials have said in the past that the river is north of the state border and that Georgia has no right to its water. That position has not changed. Newly elected Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is sure to reiterate that stand in unofficial or official discussions about the river. During his campaign, he pledged that he would "protect our precious resources and will fight any attempt to ... siphon off our water." That's not a partisan view. Legislators from both parties are united in their desire to protect the Tennessee and its water.
Georgia continues to cast a covetous eye on the Tennessee River because Georgia and especially Atlanta likely won't have enough water to meet projected needs. Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said as much. Their easy solution was to look north to what they viewed as a possibly endless supply of water rather than tackle the admittedly difficult job of developing and implementing short and long-term plans to preserve and conserve available water and to protect the environment. Those steps, not engaging in wishful thinking or even litigation about the Tennessee River, remain the best way to address Georgia's water issues.
Indeed, the final draft of the North Georgia water plan contains many proposals that reflect an understanding of the conservation-preservation approach. The document urges and encourages cities and residents to consider a variety of viable options.
The draft plan, for example, suggests ways to recycle gray water, and encourages property owners to conserve water. It also urges state and local governments and utilities to consider new regional reservoirs and progressively higher prices on excessive water use. Significant changes in planning and zoning regulations in Georgia, particularly in metropolitan areas, would prove useful adjuncts in the programs delineated in the draft plan.
The draft plan is just that -- a draft. The council plans to seek public comment this spring and to have a final plan ready for approval in late summer or early fall. Residents and officials in Tennessee should remain wary about designs on the state's namesake river and closely monitor events in Georgia. When it comes to protecting water rights, it's better to be ready to fight and not need to do so, than to need to act and be unprepared to do so.