A water pipe dream

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."


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."

Mr. Littlefield said local people have suggested that Chattanooga should swap water for a high-speed train to Georgia's capital city.

"I'm not ready to say yes to that either," he said. "I'm open to discussion. ... It's way too premature to start mapping out how that would work."

Last year, a $7 million federally funded study began to help determine the feasibility of building a high-speed train from Atlanta to Nashville through Chattanooga, according to consultant Joe Ferguson. Last week, Georgia Sens. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, and Doug Stoner, D-Smyrna, joined Mr. Ferguson and others in a trip to Shanghai to ride China's high-speed mag-lev train.

Despite his support for the high-speed train, Mr. Littlefield said he isn't ready to add a water pipe to the transportation route between Atlanta and Chattanooga.

"There's not going to be an aqueduct that's redirecting the Tennessee River down to Atlanta. That's not going to happen," Mr. Littlefield said.

In 2000, the Tennessee Legislature adopted legislation requiring any water transfer from one watershed to another to be permitted by the state Department of Environment and Conservation. So far, seven such permits have been issued, records show.

Former state Rep. Bill McAfee, R-Signal Mountain, was the lead sponsor of the bill to limit interbasin transfers.

"I would like to help Georgia if we can, but I do think we should make sure we maintain what we have for our residents and take care of our own first," Rep. McAfee said.


The current drought -- the worst in the Southeast in the 118 years of recorded data -- already is putting pressure from other communities eager to tap into the Tennessee River.

In response, TVA, which controls the flow of the 652-mile river, is taking a new look at water transfers in the Southeast. TVA Director Susan Richardson Williams, chairwoman of the board's community relations committee, said the agency will review and adopt a new policy next year about transferring water out of the Tennessee River watershed.

"Considering the importance of an adequate water supply to the quality of life and the economic vitality of the TVA region, this is going to be one of the more important policies the board is going to be asked to consider," she said.

Intakes for water withdrawals on the Tennessee River system require TVA approval under Section 26a of the TVA act. Existing interbasin transfers, excluding the Tennessee Tombigbee waterway, total about 14 million gallons of water per day. Corinth, Miss.; Franklin County, Ala.; and Cleveland, Tenn., have additional requests pending to increase water withdrawals.

A study in 2004 by TVA projects that water demand in the Tennessee Valley will increase by 51 percent by 2030. Charles Bohac, one of the authors of the study, said such an increase "could result in lower reservoir levels, less water in rivers under minimum flow conditions and water scarcity in areas not served by reservoirs."

But the 24 existing interbasin water transfers in the Tennessee River watershed still are only a drop in the bucket for the total flow of the Tennessee River. On a typical day, the Tennessee River moves 9 billion gallons of water past Chattanooga, according to TVA.

Nonetheless, TVA President Tom Kilgore, a former resident of Atlanta, said last week that he would be reluctant to give any water from the Tennessee River to the Atlanta region.

"I lived there when they were supposed to build six reservoirs around the city, and they built zero, so they're starting with the wrong person," Mr. Kilgore said.

Staff writer Pam Sohn contributed to this story.

E-mail Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com

E-mail Michael Davis at michaeld@timesfreepress.com