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TVA River Neighbors
november 2005

A growing concern: interbasin transfers

  image of Jamie Whitten Lock  

About 200 million gallons of water per day are diverted from the Tennessee River to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, primarily for navigation purposes. Shown here is the Jamie Whitten Lock in northeast Mississippi, where the Tennessee River meets the Waterway.


Blount and Cullman counties in Alabama. Whitfield, Walker, and Catoosa counties in northwest Georgia. Alcorn, Tishomingo, Prentiss, Itawamba, and Lee counties in Mississippi.

What do these places have in common? They are all looking to the Tennessee River to help meet their future water-supply needs.

Water is usually plentiful in the Tennessee Valley, with an average of about 51 inches of rainfall annually. But the predicted population growth in the Southeast, coupled with water shortages in some of the surrounding areas, has the potential to change this. The well-publicized water shortages in Atlanta and Birmingham and the recent “water wars” among the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida have heightened the public’s awareness of a potential water supply problem in the Southeast.

At issue, according to Gene Gibson, Manager of Water Supply at TVA, is the advisability of interbasin water transfers. “Interbasin transfers occur when water is moved from one river basin into another. This water is rarely returned to its source basin and only provides benefits to the area where it is transferred.”

Pipeline requests are of particular concern, says Gibson. “These requests are typically for large volumes of water, such as a potential request from the Birmingham and Blount County, Alabama, area for 180 million gallons a day from Guntersville Reservoir in Marshall County.” This request is currently on hold because Alabama has just passed the Tennessee River Preservation Act, which prohibits water from being taken out of Marshall County until the State of Alabama comes up with a comprehensive plan to manage the state’s water.

“Water is a finite and critical resource,” says Gibson, “so requests for large transfers require a thorough, rigorous, and inclusive review. Such requests could affect water levels on TVA tributary reservoirs, water quality, and other river system benefits, especially in drought years. “Impacts from an interbasin transfer aren’t limited to the extraction point,” he says. “They can occur in tributary reservoirs or streams hundreds of miles away. Future growth within the Valley also could be affected.”

At present, the amount of water being transferred out of the Tennessee River basin is minimal in comparison with the amount of water coming in, says Gibson. “About 208 million gallons of water per day leave the basin via interbasin water transfers. Of this total, about 200 million gallons is diverted to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. Most of this water is used for navigation purposes, but about 17 million gallons a day is used for water supply along the Waterway. A small amount — about eight million gallons a day — is taken out by local water companies located on the edge of the watershed who supply customers outside the watershed boundary.”

However, as a result of anticipated requests for more and larger interbasin transfers, TVA recently revised its policy for issuing permits to withdraw water for transfer to other basins. The new policy includes these requirements:

  • All seven Valley states will be informed of all transfer requests, and the state in which the withdrawal will occur must not object to TVA’s reviewing the transfer request.
  • The need for the amount of water requested and the impacts on the overall river system, including environmental and operational impacts, will be assessed for all transfers.
  • Permits will specify limits on the amount of water to be transferred from the Tennessee River system.
  • Permits will be granted for a finite amount of time, after which they must be renewed by TVA.
  • Conditions will be included in all future permits prohibiting the transferred water from being sold or distributed outside the local area or used to replace local water that is sold or distributed outside the local area.

TVA’s new water-supply policy also requires that TVA be reimbursed for the value of any power lost because of the transfer of water outside the power-service area. This is important to Valley ratepayers, according to Gibson, because hydropower generation lost as a result of less water passing through downstream electricity-generating turbines must be replaced by more expensive means.

New partnership concerned with water issues

Two years ago, the Regional Resource Stewardship Council, TVA’s citizen advisory group, recommended that TVA take the lead in establishing a seven-state Tennessee Valley Water Supply Partnership to address water-supply issues in the region.

“TVA’s role is to facilitate this partnership,” says Gibson. “The goal is to improve regional cooperation in water resource management and to provide a framework for information exchange among the seven states.”

The partnership has had three meetings so far, and those involved believe it will have a positive impact, according to member Tom Littlepage, who heads the Water Management Section for Alabama’s Office of Water Resources. “I believe that this group has a significant potential to help all of us as we face water resource management issues in our respective states.”

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