published Sunday, February 24th, 2013

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

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.

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nucanuck said...

Atlanta would be a strong candidate for Worst Urban Planning in America! Tennessee should resist sending water south if only to push them toward more sustainability.

February 24, 2013 at 1:38 a.m.
fairmon said...

Atlanta probably should have remained as Sherman left it. The worst growth plan in the country. Any permit to build should include a proven water source such as a well or cistern system.

February 24, 2013 at 3:37 a.m.
Hunter_Bluff said...

Listening to talk radio in Atlanta I'm surprised that cutting taxes won't solve their water problem (or fix their incredibly shabby interstate between Chattanooga and Atlanta)

February 24, 2013 at 6:47 p.m.
TirnaNOG said...

The private industry are buying up water rights all across America. Chattanoogans are going to wish they'd allowed their local government to buy back Tennessee-American Water once they see how it's run through private companies.

Technically, it's believed a souther most part of Chattanooga still belongs to Georgia anyway. It's been said the state of Tennessee never officially paid Georgia for a land grab and annexing a part of North Georgia into the southern part of Chattanooga {southern side of the Creek running east to west in south Chattanooga} more than half a century ago.

February 24, 2013 at 7:14 p.m.
Handleit said...

Georgia has the Atlantic coastline. Why don't they build a desalinization plant on the coast? Then Atlanta could help with the rising ocean levels due to global warming. Heck, they could help save the world and fix their poor planning from the past.

February 25, 2013 at 2:46 p.m.
john3182 said...

the U.S. Supreme Court settled the matter in 1893, ruling in Tennessee’s favor that “a boundary line between states or provinces which has been run out, located, and marked upon the earth, and afterwards recognized and acquiesced in by the parties for a long course of years, is conclusive.” In other words, if you agree to live with a border for long enough, you forfeit the right to complain about it.

taken from:

February 25, 2013 at 3:16 p.m.
joneses said...

That sure will be one expensive drink of water for the people of Atlanta. The water from the Tennessee River will have to be pumped over Sand Mountain, Lookout Mountain, Pigeon Mountain, Kennesaw Mountain and then up to Atlanta as Atlanta is at a much higher elevation than the Tennessee River. That will be one way to stop growth in Atlanta, make the water unaffordable. The Environmental Impact Statement alone will cost a fortune.

February 26, 2013 at 3:07 p.m.
dao1980 said...

Yep, GA touches the ocean, and though most of us inbred mouth-breathers here in the south don't think about the ocean "lest we can see it", a desalinization investment would definitely be the most appropriate long term solution for that nasty, steamy, greasy, stinky mess they call Hotlanta.

February 26, 2013 at 3:37 p.m.
TirnaNOG said...

Atlanta is landlocked, not near an ocean. Like North Georgia's fight for Tennessee water. Landlocked. It would be like Arizona, where the federal government has to spend billions just to pump water over the mountains and through canyons and valleys to get water to that desert land. But, like Arizona, y'all want smaller government, and the taxpayers would scream bloody murder about how their tax dollars are being wasted.

February 26, 2013 at 8:04 p.m.
dao1980 said...

I guess there are allot of mountains, canyons, and valleys in GA between Atlanta and the ocean...

March 1, 2013 at 9:44 a.m.
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