The Tennessee River Should Be Protected From the Adverse Effects of Interbasin Transfers

According to a joint study by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Tennessee River is the most intensively used river system in the country.  Approximately 97 percent of the water currently withdrawn from the river is returned to the system for use downstream, making the region one of the lowest overall water consumers in the United States.

Economies throughout the Tennessee Valley Region depend on the river system for low-cost power generation, municipal & industrial water supply, efficient waterborne transportation, recreation, tourism, environmental preservation, and jobs.  Approximately one hundred thirty-seven municipalities, fifty-eight industries, and seven mining companies in the Tennessee Valley rely on withdrawals of water from the Tennessee River System.  Water is also withdrawn for TVA power-plant cooling and for irrigation purposes.

In recent years, in excess of fifty million tons of commodities have been shipped annually via the Tennessee River.  Approximately one hundred-eighty ports and terminals on the Tennessee support industries that provide thousands of beneficial jobs for valley residents.  Recreational boating contributes over $25 million to the valley economy each year, and overall water-based recreation generates in excess of $2 Billion in annual revenues throughout the Tennessee Valley Region.

As metro Atlanta and other growing areas in north Georgia desperately search for a reliable source of municipal and industrial water supply to support their expected growth, they continue to look to the Tennessee River to accommodate their forecasted needs.  A recent proposal offers to trade road and rail transportation access to Atlanta and the Port of Savannah in exchange for long sought access to water from the Tennessee River.

The large withdrawals of water from the Tennessee River that are currently being proposed by Georgia will result in interbasin transfers, the practice of pumping fresh water from one river basin to another.  One problem with such transfers is that once the water is used, it is discharged into the receiving basin rather than returned to the originating river basin.

Adverse effects of interbasin transfers from the Tennessee River include: after the water is transferred, no water is returned to the Tennessee for reuse; impacts may not occur at the point of withdrawal, but on reservoirs far from the point of withdrawal potentially impacting municipal and industrial water supplies; interbasin transfers could impair TVA’s ability to carry out mandated responsibilities for managing the Tennessee River; interbasin transfers will reduce hydropower generation and possibly reduce water availability for power-plant cooling; and interbasin transfers at some locations would create environmental conflicts with in-stream uses such as for fish and other aquatic life.

During the drought of 2006-07, TVA experienced disruptions in power generation at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, downstream of any potential Georgia water withdrawal point, due to elevated water temperatures associated with reduced flow rates.  The same reduction of water flow also negatively impacted hydropower generation, TVA’s most economical source of electricity.  TVA, Tennessee Valley municipalities, and industries will likely see more widespread disruptions in future droughts if exacerbated by large transfers of water out of the Tennessee River basin.

In addition to the most recent proposal, both houses of the Georgia General Assembly have approved resolutions that identify water flows of at least 725 million gallons per day for possible diversion from the Tennessee River basin.  The multiple benefits and opportunities that have historically been provided by the Tennessee River System must be protected.  TRVA is actively encouraging legislatures in Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, and Mississippi to adopt measures in opposition to Georgia’s current proposal that seeks to transfer large volumes of water out of the Tennessee River basin.  Tennessee Valley Governors and Congressional Delegations are also being encouraged by TRVA to publicly support efforts that will further protect the Tennessee River System from the potentially adverse effects of the interbasin transfers now being proposed by the State of Georgia.

For nearly eight decades, TVA has successfully managed the Tennessee River by balancing the needs of the many beneficiaries, including the nine million residents in the TVA Region that are dependent in many ways on the river system.  Large volumes of water transferred away from the Tennessee basin will threaten that critical balance.  If Georgia gains access to the Tennessee River as proposed, the prospect of ever-increasing interbasin transfers without regard for downstream needs could potentially result in devastating effects on water users and economies throughout the Tennessee Valley.