Atlanta boasts the world's busiest airport, and Chattanooga is built along one of America's largest rivers.
Each community has something the other wants for future growth.
Now, some leaders are opening the door -- if only slightly -- to the potential of an extraordinary trade that would give Atlanta a portion of Chattanooga's abundant water supply and Chattanooga access to Atlanta's air travelers with a high-speed train. But major political, legal and environmental hurdles to any such deal remain.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said Monday he has talked with Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin "more or less about the fact that Atlanta is very thirsty."
"Have we been talking about running a pipeline down to Atlanta? No, we haven't. I don't even see that anytime in the near future," he said. "Anything is possible down the road, but I think any discussion about water resources is something that will take place at a state and federal and regional level."
Mr. Littlefield said Chattanooga and Atlanta need to work together on how to best manage resources, including water and transportation, in a fashion that could help both metropolitan areas. As a consultant, council member and mayor, Mr. Littlefield long has pushed for building a high-speed passenger train between Chattanooga and Atlanta and using that link to relieve some of the growth at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport by shifting some flights to Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.
Any transport of either train passengers or water supplies between the two cities probably is still decades away, experts said. But Sam Olens, chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, in suburban Atlanta, said there are opportunities to help Tennessee and Georgia by each giving up some of their abundance for the other.
"I am supportive of a win-win wherein metro Atlanta has access to excess flows from the Tennessee River in exchange for support for rail from Atlanta to Chattanooga," he said. "This would assist Chattanooga's airport and associated economic development without a second airport north of Atlanta."
HURDLES TO IDEA
Mr. Olens acknowledged that a moratorium on interbasin water transfers in Georgia and the Tennessee Valley Authority and state permits required in Tennessee would preclude any immediate deal. Gov. Phil Bredesen said he "would have a real problem" with any wholesale water transfer out of Tennessee, and Gov. Sonny Perdue previously has been reluctant to support a high-speed rail line between Atlanta and Chattanooga.
But after three years of below-average rainfall, Georgia's capital city is thirsty for a new water source. Chattanooga, which was hit as hard as any city by the deregulation of the airline industry in 1978, is eager to improve its air service and other transportation links with Atlanta and other cities.
"In times like now, we find out how stretched our assets can get," said Doug Wilson, executive director of the Georgia Water Planning and Policy Center, a nonprofit research group based in Albany, Ga. "The Tennessee River is the closest major water source for Atlanta, and if it were not for the state line, I think there would be more willingness to consider water transfers."
Mr. Wilson said any major interbasin water transfer from the Tennessee River watershed to the Atlanta area probably would require congressional action. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a former Chattanooga mayor, said recently he was "adamantly opposed" to any wholesale water sale to Atlanta.
But by building reservoirs to capture excess water supplies during above-average stream flows on the Tennessee, experts insist that some water could be diverted at times from the Tennessee River without depleting the Tennessee's watershed.
"It would be a monumental task and require a lot of horse trading to get water to Atlanta (from the Tennessee River)," Mr. Wilson said. "But America has proven it is pretty good accomplishing monumental tasks."
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