cover_story (2006-30)

In his environmental ethics class, UT Professor John Nolt used to present water shortages as an example of something we didn’t have to worry about here in East Tennessee. “My point was that different forms of conservation are appropriate for different bioregions,” he explains. To wit, saving water was not as critical here—an area blessed with plentiful rainfall and numerous sources of fresh water—as it might be in a place like dry, arid Southern California. “I would tell students that if they had money, say, to put into either water conservation or energy conservation, it makes sense in East Tennessee to choose energy conservation.”

He doesn’t use that example anymore.

In recent years, it’s become evident that East Tennessee and its major waterway, the Tennessee River, may someday be forced to share the wealth with neighboring states as their own water supplies are depleted. But some are skeptical of whether the Tennessee River system, which is already showing the wear and tear of pollution and overuse, can support such generosity as our own population and water demands continue to grow. According to TVA projections, consumptive water use within the river’s watershed alone is expected to increase by 51 percent from 2000 to 2030.

On a small scale, the sharing has already begun. About 14 million gallons of water per day are being removed from the Tennessee River system and transferred via pipeline to outlying municipalities such as Fort Payne, Ala., and Tupelo, Miss., according to TVA. For comparison, KUB supplies its 75,000 Knoxville-area customers with about 35 million gallons of water per day—enough to fill 54 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Other areas suffering from dwindling groundwater supplies—Northeast Mississippi, several counties in Alabama plus the city of Birmingham, and Walker, Whitfield and Catoosa counties in Georgia—will soon be in the market for additional water sources as well. But of most concern are the serious water-supply problems facing Atlanta, whose burgeoning population is expected to exceed the capacity of its existing water sources within the next 20 years. The counties of northwest Georgia above Atlanta are also developing faster than their water supply can support them.

One means of supplementing those areas involves piping water in from nearby watercourses via a process called interbasin transfer. And the closest body of water with sufficient volume to meet northeast Georgia’s demands is the Tennessee River.

It’s a solution that has some Tennesseans worried, including Nolt. “When Atlantans started talking maybe 10 years ago about piping water down from the Tennessee River, it became evident that our water is not wholly secure,” Nolt says.

In his book A Land Imperiled (UT Press, 2005), Nolt notes that a Chattanooga water utility, East Side Development District, has already been piping water from the Tennessee across the state line into Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. He writes, “This diversion has heightened fears that neighboring states may increasingly look to the Tennessee River to meet their water supply needs, creating water shortages even in Southern Appalachia.”

For other East Tennesseans, the prospect of sharing water—to the tune of 461 million gallons per day (to borrow from an earlier analogy, that’s enough to fill 711 Olympic-sized swimming pools), according to TVA, if water transfer requests from cities like Birmingham and Atlanta were submitted and approved—elicits a response that is more defiant than fearful. Sandra Goss, who works on the staff of Tennessee Citizens for Wildlife Planning, says she and her organization would strongly oppose such water transfers.

“Water is precious,” she says. “Water is better than money in the bank. I want to be as nice as the next person, but this is our water and we need to keep it to ourselves.”


“It all depends on where you are on this earth,” says Nelson Ross, executive director of grassroots environmental group the Tennessee Izaac Walton League. “In some areas, you can get shot if you come and take somebody’s water, but here it’s no big deal. The more water you have, the more you take it for granted. The less you have, the more protective of it you are.”

In East Tennessee, for instance, it’s easy to dismiss pessimism about the longevity of our water supply. The area is laced with streams and dotted with lakes, and parts of it enjoy the heaviest precipitation in the continental United States outside of the Pacific Northwest. The Tennessee River, Knoxville’s primary municipal water source, is vast and sprawling, originating high in the Appalachians and flowing through portions of seven states before emptying into the Ohio. It’s widely admired as one of the most biologically diverse rivers in North America, and left to its own devices, it doesn’t seem likely to dry up anytime soon.

“We don’t have water supply problems,” says Pam Jordan, manager of planning and communications at KUB. “We have an abundant supply of water from the Tennessee River, and the water quality is very good. We’re very, very blessed.”

In other parts of the world, the water situation is significantly direr. According to the United Nations, 1.1 billion people, or 18 percent of the world’s population, lack access to safe drinking water, and more than 2.2 million people die each year from diseases related to poor water and sanitary conditions. By 2025, it predicts, an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population, 5.5 billion people, will live in areas facing moderate to severe water stress.

The problem is not that we’re running out of water. As a 1993 National Geographic article put it, “All the water that will ever be is, right now.” Fresh water is a renewable resource, meaning that unlike oil, which will eventually be used up, our water supply recycles itself infinitely. Unfortunately, the amount of water that exists is not necessarily equal to the amount of water that we can use.

While 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, for instance, 97.5 percent of it is saltwater. Of the remaining 2.5 percent that is fresh water, 68 percent is frozen in icecaps and glaciers, leaving little more than 1 percent available for human use. And that 1 percent is rapidly being whittled down further as we consume it, or pollute it, faster than it can replenish itself.

Renee Hoyas, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, explains, “Lots of economists are fond of saying we can just keep recycling water, but there’s going to be a point at which we can’t because it’s been so badly polluted.”

Hoyas also dispels the myth that underground aquifers are capable of supplying an endless source of fresh water. “Groundwater is a tricky issue,” she says. “Some of these aquifers have taken hundreds of years to fill up, and if you’re pulling water out faster than it can refill, you’re going to tap out the groundwater.”

World population growth, which is accelerating at the rate of 30 to 70 million persons per year, exacerbates the problem: As water demands increase, so does the amount of pollution entering the water system. In developing countries, for instance, around 90 percent of sewage and 70 percent of industrial wastes are discharged directly into watercourses without treatment, according to U.N. data. The practice is especially common in areas with scarce water supplies in the first place, such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Conversely, areas blessed with abundant water supplies are often oblivious to the value of water and use it wastefully. According to a recent analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Tennessee River watershed ranks first nationally in average daily water withdrawals per square mile, although 95 percent of the water is eventually returned to the system. A 1995 study by TDEC/U.S. Geological Survey showed that East Tennessee uses about 2.6 times as much water as Middle Tennessee and 24 times as much as much as West Tennessee (if power generation is excluded, that’s 2.3 and 3 times as much, respectively).

“People know this is a fragile time, we know our water supply is not infinite, and yet we continue to over-consume,” Hoyas says. “But quantity of water will become an issue in the coming years.”


Already, negotiations between water’s “haves” and “have-nots” are growing more and more heated. Egypt, whose population is growing at more than 3 percent per year, has repeatedly threatened go to war over diversions of the Nile. Tensions continue to rise in South Africa over Namibia’s attempt to divert waters way from the Okavango, Botswana’s major source of water, and mining of the sub-Saharan aquifer in North Africa has spawned a great deal of controversy. The Middle East and Asia have fielded clashes as well.

In the United States, arguments over water rights have erupted between cities, politicians, environmentalists and farmers—although the phenomenon has historically been limited to the West. Now, however, the South is experiencing its own share of conflict. Last year, Mississippi sued Memphis for tapping into groundwater formations that extend into portions of its state. Alabama has threatened to sue Georgia over how it uses one of its aquifers, and Florida has expressed concern that Georgia is overusing water to an extent that may damage the state’s shellfish industry.

This summer, especially, has been rife with legal battles over water use and control—particularly in Atlanta, which is currently enduring a level-one draught. The Florida Department of Natural Resources sued Georgia for not releasing enough water from major reservoirs along the Chattahoochee River, which turns into the Apalachicola at the Florida border, to protect the habitat of two endangered species that live there. Then the state of Georgia filed suit against the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers for accidentally releasing 22.5 billion gallons of water from Lake Lanier—enough water, according to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, to support the entire city of Atlanta for 118 days. Meanwhile, water shortages and other problems continue to plague the state.


Because there was no groundwater to speak of, Atlanta’s major water source became the Chattahoochee, a modest-sized river flowing out of the mountains of north Georgia. As the city expanded throughout the 20th century, it began drawing water from additional reservoirs including Lakes Lanier and Allatoona, which were built in the ‘60s for the purpose of power generation and never intended to be used as a source of municipal water. But now, with almost half of Georgia’s population living in Atlanta, the city is fast outstripping its ability to meet its water needs.

Mark Landers, surface water specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Georgia Water Science Center, says he’s excited that water-supply issues are finally getting the attention they deserve both from the public and government officials. With the population of metro Atlanta having doubled over the past 20 years, according to the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, and an estimated 2.3 million new people expected to arrive over the next 25 years, now is the critical moment to evaluate the city’s water capacity.

“We’ve done projections through the year 2030, and we know that we’ve got to conserve more water and return more water to the streams and all kinds of things to maintain a water supply,” he says. “How much water is there right now compared to demand? You might say, just enough.”

Following the extended severe draught Atlanta experienced between 1998 and 2002, the city was motivated to develop a plan for managing and protecting its water supplies through the year 2030. It includes aggressive water conservation, new reservoirs, reuse of highly treated wastewater, and the re-designation of Lakes Lanier and Allatoona’s intended usages from power generation to municipal water supply.

The plan openly admits, however, that even if all of these key strategies are fulfilled, Atlanta’s water supply would still only be sustainable through 2035, at which point further strategies would need to be developed. And even that scenario is wishful thinking, as the most significant strategy, a re-designation of lake usages that would save 153 million gallons of water per day, will likely be shot down as a result of political disputes between the state and Florida/Alabama, both of which have vested interests in the lakes’ releases.

Alternative strategies, says Landers, are being investigated, including studies on possible water transfers from the Tennessee and Savannah rivers. What is the likelihood of the transfers actually happening? “As a thinking person, considering population growth in Atlanta and anticipating a very large population growth in north Georgia, it does seem very likely that Georgia will pull water out of the Tennessee River basin,” he says.

Grace Trimble, senior communications coordinator for the Atlanta Regional Commission, agrees that while “ultimately, we’re going to have to figure something else out,” the city’s most effective strategy at this time is strict conservation. “We’re not asking people to give up something, but just to be mindful of how much water they’re using and to not use it wastefully,” she explains.

For instance, the state has mandated restrictions on outdoor watering, wherein odd-numbered addresses can water on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and even-numbered addressed can water on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, with no watering allowed on Friday. At the worst of the draught, Atlanta enforced a total ban on outdoor watering.

The effectiveness of such bans—and whether Georgians are willing to obey them—remains to be seen. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution , over 1,000 warnings were handed out to rebel yard-waterers this June alone.


The answer is, it can be. Like any rearrangement of nature, notes TVA, “water transferred from rivers via interbasin transfers can upset the established balance of water uses upstream and downstream. Interbasin transfers can also impact the overall ecological health of the donor and receiving systems…. Impacts from an interbasin transfer can occur not only at the extraction point but in tributary reservoirs or streams hundreds of miles away.”

Scott Gain, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Tennessee Water Science Center, says that other issues are at stake as well. Perhaps most importantly, is the Tennessee River basin abundant enough to supplement, if not support, multiple river basins at once? “There are some very real issues concerning water availability in Tennessee itself, just for Tennesseans,” Gain explains.

The problems causing the most conflict right now are taking place well away from major watercourses like rivers, says Gain. Rather, they involve streams and tributaries that aren’t big enough to support the communities that are growing around them. “In the distant past, we didn’t have to worry about this because their withdrawals weren’t significant,” he says. “But now, there are places in Tennessee—Rogersville, for instance—that are having difficulty with sufficient flow of water.”

Tennessee Clean Water Network’s Hoyas explains that chronically overdrawing from creeks can significantly alter the hydrology of an area, affecting both groundwater and surface water reserves.  “What we’re seeing is a decrease in the flow and the volume of these creeks, and people are noticing that their wells are drying up as well,” she says.

In 2004, TVA released a comprehensive report inventorying the Tennessee Valley’s water supply and analyzing its needs. One of the objectives, says Chuck Bohac, TVA’s water-supply specialist in river operations and a co-author of the report, was to identify areas in the Tennessee River watershed that are facing or are expected to face critical water-supply issues. Examples include Crossville, Cumberland County, Pikeville and Bledsoe County.

“On the whole, there should be enough water to support water demand in the valley in general, although there will be some places that will have difficulty,” Bohac says. That’s not, however, factoring in the toll interbasin transfers would likely take on the system.

One question that has been addressed is the procedure through which states must proceed if they wish to apply for an interbasin transfer permit. In 2000, TDEC, the governing body that has ultimate say-so over whether a water transfer may take place, outlined a list of rules and regulations under the headline of Tennessee’s Interbasin Water Transfer Act. Included is a set of criteria that may be used to determine if the transfer may take place, which, among other things, ensures that the donor river’s water needs are met, fish and wildlife are protected, and conservation of water is emphasized.

Hoyas points out the legislation’s inclusion of public participation mandates, by which potentially affected communities must be notified of permit applications received and given the opportunity for a public hearing if any dissent is present. “That will be really important here in five or 10 years,” she says.


How long it takes us to arrive at the point at which water transfers must take place, however, is a variable we can control.

As Hoyas points out, remaining conscious of and, if need be, critical of our government’s water management practices is important. This means encouraging officials to create and enforce legislation that is mindful of the environment and strives to keep the water supplies we do have clean.

Tisha Calabrese, TDEC’s deputy communications director, says, “We’ve made a significant amount of progress when it comes to water quality in Tennessee, and we have plenty of work left to do.... If you look at the number of stream miles impaired in Tennessee, that is generally improving. While at the same time our monitoring and data collection is getting more and more detailed, giving us a clearer picture to share with the public.”

Calabrese says TDEC has observed a shift in the types of pollutant sources in the state from point sources, which are emitted from a single point such as industrial discharges, to non-point source pollution, such as storm-drain runoff, which is harder to control. “It is also an area where citizens can really help make a difference by being aware that what they put in their yards, what washes across parking lots and into storm drains impacts the waters that they recreate in and in some cases that their drinking water comes from,” Calabrese explains.

Water conservation is another practice that everyone is capable of adopting. “What people can do is be aware of their impact by looking around and seeing how much water they use,” says Peg Beute, conservation programs director at Ijams Nature Center. Ways to cut back on water waste are numerous: shortening showers and installing water-saving showerheads, fixing leaky faucets and pipes, only running full loads in the washing machine and dishwasher, and watering the lawn only when it needs it, to name a few.

Beute stresses the importance of educating both ourselves and our children about ways to lessen our impact on the earth. Ijams’ “Living Clean and Green” series of programs and workshops aims to do just that by going into the community and sharing with the public ways they can improve their local environment. (For more information, visit .)

“The threat of not having clean water is hard to put into words, especially when people can just turn on their tap and get clean water. It’s hard to get across the immediacy of the problem, but it’s there,” Beute explains. “But water is something we can’t do without. It’s not like we have a choice.”