Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

A River Runs through It

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

A River Runs through It

Article excerpt

An integrated system of dams gives TVA the unique ability to manage the Tennessee River's potential for a broad range of benefits.

Electricity has fueled past prosperity; the lifeblood of the future is water. Human imagination will usher forth new technologies and the promise of renewable and distributed energy generation. But water is a finite resource with a finite carrying capacity.

Historically, the Tennessee Valley has enjoyed ample water supplies--the result of precipitation from Gulf moisture pushed eastward by large frontal movements. Average annual rainfall in the region is 51 inches (130 centimeters), compared to 5 to 20 inches in the southwestern United States, about 30 inches along the northern tier states, and 40 to 45 inches in the northeast.

Even the Tennessee Valley, however, is not immune to water shortages. An extended drought from 1984 through 1988 caused municipalities to restrict water use and accept a higher rate of pollution due to the reduced assimilative capacity of the river. More recently, from 1998 through today, lower than normal rainfall has caused drought conditions across the region. For calendar year 2000, precipitation averaged 38 inches across the Valley--13 inches below normal--demonstrating again the region's dependence on large volumes of water for home use, not to mention navigation, power generation, recreation, and industrial needs.

Growing Demand

Consider how the region is growing, and the seriousness of the situation is readily apparent. About 4 million people get their drinking water from the Tennessee River and its tributaries. Likewise, numerous water-intense industries rely on steady, large-volume withdrawals. This includes TVA, which withdraws about seven billion gallons a day for thermoelectric power generation--primarily for cooling water used in the process of generating fossil and nuclear power. TVA's ability to operate its dams to meet water demands for power generation is a little-understood part of what makes the TVA system fully integrated and operationally interdependent. All this adds up to a total daily withdrawal of more than 9 billion gallons (34 billion liters) a day. Fortunately, most of this water is returned to the river where it is available for use over and over again.

Rapid growth in the amount of water used by industry is realistic given the region's advantages: its location near the population center of the United States, interstate highways crossing from east to west and north to south, an excellent rail network, major regional airlines, barge transportation, four distinct seasons and relatively mild winters, and, perhaps most important, a reliable water supply of good quality.

Water usage issues become even more alarming from a broader geographic perspective. Concerns over water supply have already hit Atlanta with a vengeance. (See "Thirst for Growth" in this issue of FORUM.) But the problems with ensuring Atlanta's water supply do not end with Atlanta. Medium-size and smaller cities, and even towns all over the country, already are struggling with tremendous growth in water usage.

A fight brewing in north Georgia is symptomatic of what the region will likely be facing in the not too distant future. According to a lawsuit recently filed by the Southeastern Federal Power Customers Inc., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permitted a small amount of water to be removed from Lake Lanier in the 1970s under contracts with the Atlanta Regional Commission, Gwinnett County, and the cities of Cumming and Gainesville. The removal of water greatly increased over the years from about 10,000 acre-feet (12 million cubic meters) per day in 1977 to about 134,000 acre-feet per day in 1999--an increase of almost 1,200 percent. Few water sources can long support that rate of growth.

Escalating Conflict

Growth--in terms both of population and water use--is clearly the most serious issue facing water management in the next century. …

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