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Vols v. Dawgs: Between the Riverbasins

March 21, 2011

Georgians have talked-up the possibility of an interbasin transfer (IBT) from the Tennessee River to supplement metro-Atlanta’s and the Chattahoochee’s water supply for some time. Georgians, in the dry-depths of the 2007-08 drought, talked about moving the state line to gain access to the Tennessee River. In November 2009, the Water Contingency Task Force called the IBT idea “highly contentious” for multiple reasons. I laid out, in a recent post, additional enviro-legal and energy-related factors that could make a large-scale Tennessee River transfer more complicated. And in the 2011 legislative session, Georgians are once again eyeballing the mighty Tennessee.

A ‘New’ Claim: Some Georgians believe, including one county commissioner quoted in this Rome News Tribune piece, the Tennessee River could spare up to 250 million gallons per day (MGD). To be fair, Georgia currently ‘imports’ about 2.7 MGD from the Tennessee basin. But 250 MGD?

The 250 MGD Source: In 2004, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) – a quasi-independent federal agency that has subsidized electrical generation, navigation, flood control, water supply, recreation, and other agrarian and industrial constituencies since 1933 – vaguely evaluated IBTs. As noted in Chapter 4 (Section 5, “Water Supply,” p. 1) of the River Operations Study (ROS): “Some future IBTs could be of sufficient size to affect reservoir operations and water supplies. Because they are speculative, these future IBTs were not” an official part of the study.

TVA’s ROS did include a three-page “Sensitivity Analysis” (a.k.a. Appendix D9) that was not comprehensive, did not include a full environmental impact statement, and should not be construed as a recommendation. The analysis’ less than rigorous conclusion: a 264 MGD IBT might not be such a big deal. However, “this conclusion [was] only valid for the assumptions used. IBTs with other withdrawal points or withdrawal quantities might result in different outcomes,” particularly in dry years. Later, TVA reiterated their official position: “if you did an interbasin transfer, it would significantly affect the reservoir elevations and TVA’s ability to manage the river for all its multiple purposes” and constituencies, as one TVA spokesman put it to an Atlanta Magazine writer in June 2008.

What to do: A Tennessee River IBT does not make sense for a variety of reasons. First, downstream communities in Tennessee and Alabama would prefer that the water remain in the basin. Second, the Water Contingency Task Force thought it was a bad idea. And third, Georgians are better-off putting energy into resolving the tri-state water war, obtaining Congressional reauthorization for Lake Lanier (including raising the lake’s level), and reaping immediate returns on water efficiency programs. That constitutes a common sense plan of action that makes environmental, economic, and political sense for all Georgia tax payers and their downstream neighbors.

-Chris Manganiello

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