Georgia still has Tennessee water on its mind

Georgia still has Tennessee water on its mind

July 28th, 2009 by Pam Sohn in Georgia

Tennessee officials still have no intention of letting Georgia tap into the Tennessee River, despite a federal court ruling last week that set a three-year clock ticking for Atlanta to find a new water source.

"Tennessee officials are not rethinking this issue," said Gov. Phil Bredesen's spokeswoman Lydia Lenker on Monday.

A judge ruled that Atlanta can no longer rely on Lake Lanier as its primary water source because such plans would adversely affect communities downstream in Alabama and Florida. The lake was never meant to be a water source in the first place, the judge said.

With that ruling the Tennessee River may now be a more viable option than it was before, said But Bert Brantley, spokesman for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Border war impacts

In Metro Chattanooga alone, moving the state line to give Georgia access to the Tennessee River give take to Georgia:

* Much of South Chattanooga

* Much of the South Crest area of Missionary Ridge

* Nearly all of East Ridge

* Audubon Acres

* Much of East Brainerd

* The entire Council Fire and Hurricane Creek developments

* Most of Lookout Mountain, Tenn.

"Everything has to be on the table," Mr. Brantley said. "When we had (Lanier) reservoir there to be used, the expense of (fighting to tap the Tennessee) made it a less likely option to endeavor. But when you now put up the potential for a greatly reduced access to that reservoir -- that changes the conversation somewhat."

Lake Lanier supplies water to about 3 million of Atlanta's 4.5 million residents, but Georgia, Florida and Alabama have been fighting for 19 years over how to use water that comes from the Apalachiocola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin -- water that also fills Lake Lanier.

Mr. Brantley said the expense of a legal battle with the Volunteer State and the infrastructure necessary to pipe Tennessee River water southward remain some of the "cons" of the idea.

"But I don't think we're in position of striking any ideas off the table and dismissing them out of hand," he said.

Years ago, Georgia began eyeing the Tennessee River as a North Georgia water source, only to meet the rebuffs of Tennessee officials who, in 2000, passed legislation to protect the river.

Then in 2008, claiming a 200-year-old surveying error, Georgia's General Assembly passed a bill authorizing Gov. Perdue to negotiate with Gov. Bredesen to move the state line north about a mile, providing Georgia with a corner of the Tennessee River near Nickajack Cave in Marion County.

Georgia officials claim the correct Tennessee and Georgia border should follow what Congress set in 1796 when it established the state of Tennessee with a southern boundary "at the 35th degree of north latitude." In 1826, however, surveyors with faulty instruments set the current boundary marker about a mile south of the 35th latitude.

Gov. Bredesen has said for more than a year that he is not willing to negotiate over Tennessee's border or its water resources.

Water officials from both states have said it likely would require not just state action, but U.S. congressional action as well to move the border or transfer some of the river water to Georgia.

Gil Rogers, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Georgia can make due with the water it has -- even without Lake Lanier -- by instituting strong water conservation measures.

"Savings can be in the millions of gallons of water a day," Mr. Rogers said. "But you have to have a government that's serious about promoting conservation.

If Georgia goes after the Tennessee River, he said, it will mean more expensive litigation and very costly pipeline extensions.

"There are easier things to do in the near term that aren't nearly as far-fetched as trying to move the border with Tennessee," Mr. Rogers said.

Gov. Perdue and other state officials have laid out four plans to fight the loss of Lake Lanier and find additional water sources, Mr. Brantley said -- appealing the Lanier ruling, persuading congressional action to add water to Lake Lanier's purposes, continuing to negotiate with neighboring states, and looking at contingency plans.

"The most environmentally friendly plan and most economical plan is to continue to use Lake Lanier," Mr. Brantley said. "That is a reservoir built by the taxpayers, and to only use that lake for hydropower, navigation and flood control ignores a major benefit the reservoir can play."

When Lake Lanier was built, Congress members didn't know Atlanta would grow to host the Olympics, become the international gateway of business and be the home of millions of people.

"But things change and so you have to have a common-sense attitude about these kinds of things," he said.