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Last updated 6:58PM ET
April 22, 2021
Georgia Officials Eye TN River For More Water
(APR - Alabama Public Radio ) - As drought-stricken Georgia looks for other ways to quench its growing thirst, some politicians are looking across the state line to the massive Tennessee River basin for an answer.

Leaders from Tennessee have poured cold water on the idea, saying there's too many political and financial hurdles to overcome. And other critics warn it could set off a new round of lawsuits over such a transfer's impact on aquatic life.

Still, some are holding out hope that tapping into the massive river basin which has a flow about 15 times greater than the river feeding Atlanta could help solve Georgia's water problem.

And one metro Atlanta leader says old-fashioned political horse-trading might do the trick.

Atlanta needs water. And Chattanooga wants a high-speed rail line to link the two cities.

"From my perspective, I'm open to a discussion where there's a win-win. Chattanooga would potentially receive the rail line it desires, and in return metro Atlanta would have access to excess flow from the river," said Sam Olens, the chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

"But I want it to be a real win-win, where there's literally an opportunity for both metro Atlanta and Chattanooga."

The mayors of both towns have had discussions about the water crisis, too, but they were far from "in-depth," said Richard Beeland of the Chattanooga mayor's office.

"It's really an issue that will be decided on a state, federal and regional level," he said. "We would defer to them."

Supporters say that piping in water from the Tennessee is more feasible than desalinizing water from the Atlantic Ocean, another idea that Atlanta officials have floated.

On paper, the plans seems appealing.

Atlanta relies on the smallest watershed in the country serving a major metropolitan area, experts say, and Georgia has been locked in a legal battle with Alabama and Florida over how best to use the dwindling federal reservoirs in the region.

Just north of the state line sits the Tennessee River, which stretches 652 miles long and surges at a rate more than 15 times greater than Atlanta's Chattahoochee River. And Tennessee has been angling for a high-speed rail line, in part to shift flights from busy Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to Chattanooga's smaller airport.

But critics and there are many say the idea is a nonstarter.

The cost would be enormous. Tennessee would need a revamped set of laws, since current statutes severely restrict water transfers out of the basin. Alabama and Mississippi, which also rely on flows from the river, would likely fight any move that threaten their flows.

And the transfer could unhinge the delicate temperature balance that sustains aquatic life in the basins, threatening plants, fish and other aquatic life.

So far, Tennessee politicians have lined up to douse the idea.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said he had "a real problem" with a wholesale transfer of water, and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, said he was "very concerned" about the possibility.

Georgia politicians seem a bit more willing to consider it. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said "we will keep all options on the table" and that it "only makes sense to look at all possibilities." And Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said any solution to the state's water crisis needs to be "very creative."

"The final responsibility for charting Georgia's legal strategy on water and negotiating with other states rests with the governor, but I believe this is an option we should be actively considering," he said.

Some see another motive in the recent debate.

"All this discussion about bringing water in from Tennessee, and moving water from other places, is just another way to change the subject for Georgia's pathetic record of water management and planning," said Sally Bethea, the director of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

"There's still such an unwillingness to change the city's growth plans it deflects from what we really need to talk about."


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