Georgia claims that Florida itself, or Mother Nature, is to blame for the collapse of the Apalachicola oyster industry and other drought-related impacts. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in essence, sided with Georgia last month, stipulating that metro Atlanta will get virtually all the water it needs from the Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier through 2050.
But the special master, in a series of questions and comments during the five-week trial in Portland, Maine, made it clear he wants Georgia and Florida to explore a variety of water-boosting possibilities, including sources beyond the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin.
“Suppose the Supreme Court ordered that a canal be created between the Tennessee River and the Chattahoochee River,” Lancaster wondered Nov. 29. “What effect would that have?”
Attorneys and other water war hangers-on in the half-filled courtroom were stunned that Lancaster would bring up such an audacious, expensive and largely moribund scheme. But tapping the Tennessee is an idea that has been around since at least 1988, when an Atlanta Regional Commission official broached the idea.
On the surface, the Tennessee seems an obvious choice to slake metro Atlanta’s insatiable thirst. Just a mile north of the state line, the river snakes from Knoxville, through Chattanooga, into Northern Alabama and Mississippi before returning to western Tennessee and joining the Ohio River in Kentucky.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal corporation and the country’s largest public power company, manages the 652-mile-long river. At Chattanooga, the river flows at 34,300 cubic feet per second — roughly 20 times the amount that typically flows through the Chattahoochee River at Buford Dam.
Rivers don’t follow political boundaries, or state lines, and the sharing of far-off streams is common among cities, states and countries. The Colorado River, for example, courses through seven Western states and supports Los Angeles (242 miles away), Las Vegas and other towns.
A handful of municipalities in North Georgia, including Dalton, buy Tennessee River water. In February 2008, Georgia Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, introduced legislation to move Georgia’s northwest boundary a mile north to capture a portion of the Tennessee River. Tennessee legislators roundly opposed the measure and any wholesale transfer of water to Georgia.
Georgia officials have toyed with the notion of subsidizing a high-speed rail line between Chattanooga and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in exchange for Tennessee River water.
Joining the Tennessee and Chattahoochee rivers, via pipes, could cost upward of $5 billion under one scenario. Transferring water from one river basin to another also raises the ire of environmentalists who say fish, plants and other aquatic life would be endangered.
“We are most shocked and disappointed that the special master would recommend an interbasin transfer from outside the ACF as a solution,” said Chris Manganiello, the water policy director for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “Such a scheme will only drag more neighboring states into this already protracted battle.”
Gov. Nathan Deal declined to comment. Shafer, now a key member of the state Senate’s leadership as its president pro tem, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Ryan Rowberry, a Georgia State University professor who worked on a previous Georgia v. Florida water battle, said the time might be ripe for a water-for-train swap. Time, though, is drawing nigh.
"This is a last-ditch effort to get the parties to try and come up with a sensible agreement so the master doesn't need to penalize both groups," Rowberry said.