Water wars spill across state lines: Georgia moves to shift boundary

photo Tennessee-Georgia water dispute

The Tennessee River is not to be taken for granted.

And it shouldn't be piped to North Georgia in a land grab either.

In 1998, a Georgia planner named Harry West, half jokingly talked of sticking "a big straw" in the Tennessee to bring water to thirsty Atlanta."

The talk made headlines and galvanized Tennessee state officials to action, drafting a new permitting law that bans what is called "interbasin transfers." The bill quickly passed unanimously.

In approving it, Tennessee lawmakers and policy wonks pointed to the example of the Colorado River, which once flowed from the Rockies into Mexico and then to the Gulf of California, Now after being diverted hundreds of miles to Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and other fast-growing cities and acres of 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 dry.

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 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 to 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 -- the basin or watershed of the river as it flows 652 miles from upper East Tennessee through Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Huntsville, Ala., and Eastport, Miss., before it turns north and runs back into the Volunteer State. It crosses the state to form the division between Middle and West Tennessee before flowing finally into the Ohio River at Paducah, Ky.

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.

Georgia, claiming that a botched 1826 land survey set its border with Tennessee one mile too far south and cheated Georgia of a cornerhold on the river, wants to move the state line and pipe away hundreds of millions of gallons a day.

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 urgings for conservation.

Nonetheless, Georgia lawmakers last week fast-tracked a new bill -- the 10th in about as many years -- seeking to move the state line to the 35th parallel -- the marker Congress intended as the border between the states.

And it's all to give Georgia about an acre of access to the Tennessee River near Nickajack Cave.

This bill differs from previous ones in that it wouldn't move the entire state line. Instead it seeks a 1.5-square-mile strip of land, not 65.5 square miles.

Tennessee lawmakers mostly have just shaken their heads.

"You can't blame them," said Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga. "Poor planning in Atlanta, I guess, and the urban sprawl. And one of the things they forgot about was, gosh, we might want a drink of water some day. But not out of this river."

Time will tell. With growing populations and expected increases in temperatures in the coming decades, water will be the new gold.

Our state's politicians may not always be so faithful.

We hope Atlanta can find an appropriate solution.

But the river in our backyard is not it.