(courtesy of the Atlanta Business Chronicle)
Georgia lawmakers eye Tennessee River’s water
A new legislative effort is under way to solve metro Atlanta’s water supply problems by turning to the Tennessee River.
A bill introduced into the Georgia Senate Feb. 1 would exempt a portion of the Tennessee River basin inside Georgia from an 11-year-old ban on “interbasin transfers” that blocks water from outside Atlanta from being piped into the metro region.
Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been locked in a legal battle for more than two decades over sharing water from the Chattahoochee and Coosa river basins. But even as those tri-state water wars raged, Georgia political and business leaders have been eying the Tennessee River as potentially a better alternative than either of the other two systems.
The Tennessee River’s prime advantage is its size. It’s the fifth-largest U.S. river, with an average flow of about 24 billion gallons a day at Nickajack Lake near Chattanooga, Tenn. That’s 15 times the average flow of the Chattahoochee River at Buford Dam and five times that of the Coosa River at Rome, according to a 2004 study by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
“It’s a massive river,” said Brad Carver, partner in the Midtown law firm Hall Booth Smith P.C. and the firm’s senior managing director of government affairs, who has written a white paper in favor of tapping the Tennessee. “Long term, the Tennessee River has to be part of our solution.”
The Tennessee’s biggest disadvantage as a potential water source for metro Atlanta is that the river itself and the vast majority of its watershed lie outside of Georgia.
The General Assembly tried to overcome that obstacle four years ago with legislation urging then-Gov. Sonny Perdue to pursue negotiations with Tennessee to move the Georgia-Tennessee border a mile to the north, which would put the line in the river. The measure’s supporters cited evidence that the border was set inaccurately by a 19th century survey.
But Tennessee officials would have nothing to do with the idea, so nothing came of the legislature’s request.
Another barrier to tapping not only the Tennessee River but any other river system outside of metro Atlanta to supply metro water customers is a 2001 state law that prohibits interbasin transfers into the metro area from other parts of Georgia.
The ban is part of a broader law that created the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. Lawmakers from districts along the Savannah River and other large river systems worried that the new district would try to grab water from their rivers and pipe it to metro Atlanta insisted on the interbasin transfer ban before they would support the bill.
But Carver said lawmakers from those areas have every reason to vote for this year’s legislation exempting the Tennessee River from the ban.
“If we can say to them, ‘We’re not going to target your river. We’re going after a much larger river,’ ... they will see this as protection,” he said. “They will see this as a way to solve North Georgia’s water problems without harming other folks.”
Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, who was a prime mover of the interbasin transfer ban, said it makes sense to carve out an exception for the Tennessee River. Powell’s district is along the Savannah River, long considered a likely target of an Atlanta water grab.
“I’d rather see them get their water out of the Tennessee River than out of northeast Georgia,” he said. “The impact would be much greater on us. The Tennessee River is never going to run out of water.”
But environmental advocates, who worked with Powell and other lawmakers to pass the ban, remain opposed to interbasin transfers.
April Ingle, executive director of the Athens-based Georgia River Network, pointed to studies showing that aggressive water conservation and efficiency measures could save metro Atlanta up to 210 million gallons of water a day, more than Lake Lanier provides to the region’s water customers.
“We can get the water we need quicker, cheaper and with a lot less controversy,” she said.
But the bill’s supporters say stepped-up conservation without additional water supplies won’t be enough to meet the needs of metro Atlanta’s rapidly growing population.
“Conservation is important, [but] we need a [water supply] plan,” said Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, the bill’s chief sponsor.
Georgia’s legal basis for tapping into the Tennessee River is that Georgia contributes 1.7 billion gallons of water each day to the Tennessee River via several tributaries that flow north into the river, representing 7 percent of its watershed.
But if the bill passes and is signed into law, Georgia still would need a willing partner in Tennessee.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has expressed interest in exploring a swap between the two states that has been talked about for years involving Georgia trading a high-speed rail linking Chattanooga with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for access to the Tennessee River’s water.
Deal’s counterpart, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, has gone further than his predecessors by indicating a willingness to sit down and talk about the issue.
But Mullis downplayed the likelihood of the Tennessee River spigot opening up to Georgia in the short term.
“We have no plans for the present,” he said. “This is setting it up for the future.”
Premium content from Atlanta Business Chronicle by Dave Williams, Staff Writer
*Dave Williams covers Government