Water planning essential to Tennessee’s sustainability and economic future

TML Communications Specialist

Throughout the summer, state officials have been crisscrossing Tennessee to discuss both the current condition of the state’s water supply as well as future plans for water conservation and preservation.

TN H20 is a project bringing together stakeholders from all levels of government as well as industry, academia, environmental advocacy groups, and public utilities to develop a statewide plan for future water availability in Tennessee.

Later this fall, a final report including an assessment of current water resources and recommendations to help ensure Tennessee has an abundance of water resources to support future population and economic growth will be presented to Gov. Bill Haslam and then be made available for public comment.

Deputy Gov. Jim Henry, chairman of the TN H20 steering committee, helped lead a panel presentation during the TML Annual Conference held in Knoxville in June. He said water isn’t something he or many Tennesseans have given much consideration to in the past because the state has always seemed blessed with an abundance of water.

“I’m from Kingston where there is an abundance of water,” Henry said. “he Tennessee River, Emory River, and Clinch River run together there, and our focus is usually on the water quality. Right after the governor asked me to head this steering committee, I went to Mexico on vacation. It was amazing to see that people on one side of the street living in the finest luxury you can imagine and people on the other side of the street have a burro tied up to their tin hut. A lot of that comes down to unequal water supplies.”
However, Henry said it is easy to see water issues on the horizon for Tennessee.

“Water is both the lifeblood of the human system and the lifeblood of Tennessee communities,” he said. “Water is crucial to our state from manufacturing to recreation to agriculture. Over the past several years, Tennessee has experienced several issues that highlight the need for a comprehensive study and assessment of its water resources. We face droughts impacting numerous communities across Tennessee. We have been confronted by the failure of aging wastewater and drinking water systems. We have been drawn into contentious interstate battles over who has rights over water.”

TDEC Commissioner Dr. Shari Meghreblian said the job of TDEC and the mission of TN H20 going forward is to ensure that Tennessee remains a good place to live, work, and play through good stewardship of water resources.

“We in Tennessee right now do not regulate water quantity, and this isn’t what TN H20 is about. You can’t really talk about water quantity without talking about water quality,” she said. “If you have more water, you have more opportunity to use that water and reuse that water. Having an abundance of water is important, and from a TDEC perspective, we work with large urban areas and small towns and municipalities to deal with issues. However, it sometimes feels like a game of whack-a-mole where if you handle a problem over here another one pops up over here. We have to solve these problems as a state before we get to a situation where it’s too late.”

Henry said the state’s rapid economic growth wouldn’t have been possible without its water supply.

“The state’s population is expected to double in the next 50 years – there will be 14 million people in Tennessee in 50 years,” Henry said. “States are already competing with us for fresh water. There are lawsuits with Georgia and Mississippi. People need to take this issue seriously because our economic development depends on having an adequate, clean supply of water that is inexpensive. While water is inexpensive compared to what we have paid in the past, water will get more expensive.”

Municipalities across Tennessee are already dealing with balancing the health and safety of their water supply with meeting the demands of growing populations. Franklin Mayor Ken Moore said making sure there is enough water for consumption is just as important as making sure water is reused properly.

“Franklin is a city that is all about planning, but water infrastructure is one of the most complex areas of planning a city can do,” he said. “You want to be sustainable, and you want to appease the regulators. We aren’t a community that requires a lot of industrial water, but we are a growing community of people who need drinking water. We have to find laces to discharge our water and find places to discharge our gray water. We also have a river that runs through our city that is a recreation center and is just pretty.”

West Knox Utility District Manager Drexel Heidel said East Tennessee is also facing similar issues.
“Like a lot of Tennessee, we are experiencing a lot of rapid growth,” he said. “Right now we have 16 subdivisions under construction, and in the last two years we have approved 4,500 residential lots for construction we expect to see built out in the next five years. Some of the water and wastewater related issues we are going to be facing are regulatory issues. Future regulations I see coming down the road will include changes in the lead-copper rule thanks to Flint, Mich., and there are going to be changes for total nitrogen and phosphorous. However, I think the biggest problem is how we are going to handle all the growth. It puts a strain on our water, sewer, and general infrastructure.”
In addition to residential growth, industry across the state relies heavily on water. A study published by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2018 found that the U.S. withdraws 322 billion gallons of water per day with more than 50 percent of those total withdrawals being used by 12 states: California, Texas, Idaho, Florida, Arkansas, New York, Illinois, Colorado, North Carolina, Michigan, Montana, and Nebraska.

Tennessee reported the withdrawal of 6.42 million gallons of water per day with thermoelectric power, public water supply, and industry being the biggest users of the state’s water.
Hanneke Counts, vice president for global health, safety, environment, and security with Kingsport-based Eastman Chemical Company, said her company couldn’t make its products without water.

“In order for us to make our products we need water, and we require an ample supply of water at all of our manufacturing plants around the world,” she said. “At our Kingsport site, we withdraw water from the south fork of the Holston River, and we use river water mainly as non-contact cooling water in our manufacturing process. Even though we are a large withdrawer of water we don’t consume a lot of water; we put almost 100 percent of that water back into the river. Without water, we would have to curtail production or stop it all together, which has happened at some of our manufacturing sites around the world.”

As a result, Counts said the company has taken a closer look at how its water use impacts the surrounding area.
“Water is one of the most important resources – ultimately the most important,” she said. “We look at innovative ways to reduce our environmental footprint such as introducing sustainable products. Water quality is important to us also. We live in the communities where we operated, and we want clean water just like everyone else. Every 10 years, we have an independent study done on Eastman’s impact on the local water supply, and the condition of the river has improved since we began that in 1965.”

Increasingly, water supply is becoming an interstate issue as well. Tennessee is already facing issues related to water scarcity, including suits from other states over control of area water supply.

“We are used to hearing concerns about water in the western states like California and Arizona,” Megrehblian said. “However, if you read up on water quantity issues you’ll see one of the biggest fights going on over water rights is between Georgia and Florida. That fight has gone all the way to the Supreme Court. I know if you’re from West Tennessee you know there are issues over the Memphis aquifer.”

In 2014, a suit filed by Mississippi against the state of Tennessee and city of Memphis in the U.S. Supreme Court claimed Tennessee was stealing water and groundwater from an underground aquifer that crosses state lines.

The Memphis Sand Aquifer is a primary drinking source for parts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas. The suit before the U.S. Supreme Court is still ongoing as evidentiary hearings continue and evidence is collected. A similar case filed by Mississippi against the city of Memphis was dismissed in 2010.
In March 2018, the state of Georgia revisited a long-running dispute with Tennessee over control of the Tennessee River, which provides water to much of northern Georgia including Atlanta.

The argument is based on a 200-year-old surveying mistake that set the Tennessee-Georgia state line about a mile south of where it was intended to be located along the 35th Parallel, but Georgia’s real aim is getting access to Nickajack Lake.

Heidel said these suits not only affect him as a utility employee but also as a Tennessee resident.

“It’s important to see what issues our state is going to face in the next few years,” he said. “We need to identify the issues we never thought about like legal issues. All these other states want our water, and as a Tennessean that affects me. We have to think about how we protect the water we use recreationally but also maintain the rights of those who own property right next to the water. We need to think about how we are going to improve our water infrastructure. We have to solve both the problems that already exist and begin working on solutions for programs that might arise in the future.”

Meghreblian said the ultimate goal of the TN H20 plan is to provide a framework from Memphis to Mountain City for how Tennessee monitors, uses, preserves, and conserves its water supply.

“We are really looking at this from the 50,000 foot level and figuring out how much water we have today, where is it, how accessible it is, who is pulling what out and where, and then try to estimate what that will mean 30 or 40 years ahead,” Meghreblian said. “We then have to make sure the money we spend between now and then, the initiatives we fund, and the priorities we set will have a positive impact on our future. This plan may look different from Memphis than it does East Tennessee because their issues are different. It will give us a great leg up on our surrounding states especially if those states tryto get access to our water supply. If we are paying attention to what is going on, we are in a much better position to protect ourselves from a legal standpoint as well as truly on the ground.”

The TN H20 Steering Committee plans to publish findings from their statewide study of water resources in the late fall after the findings have been presented to and approved by Gov. Bill Haslam.