UT Expert: Tennessee Needs Data To Protect Its Water

KNOXVILLE – Uncertainty about water usage could make Tennessee unable to protect its water supply from other states.

University of Tennessee water resource specialist Dr. David Feldman was in Nashville recently, as the Tennessee Senate Environment, Conservation and Tourism Committee held hearings on how to protect the region’s water supplies. He said the state is looking for more data.

“The information that they feel is needed is data on how much water is actually being withdrawn by various users across the state,” Feldman said. “Public utility districts, farmers, industry, power companies, anybody that is actually using water on a large scale.”

Dodd Galbreath, director of policy for the Department of Environment and Conservation, testified to the committee that this issue would become more important as development continues.

“We’re trying to be proactive and deal with this issue before we recognize we’ve already got a problem, so we can avoid a problem,” Galbreath said.

A study by the U.S. Geologic Survey said as of 1995, Tennessee withdrew 10.1 billion gallons of fresh water daily for industrial and personal use, while Alabama withdrew 7.1 billion gallons. Georgia withdrew 5.8 billion gallons, and Mississippi withdrew 3.1 billion gallons daily. On a per capita basis, Tennessee used the most water, with 1,917 gallons daily per person. The study said most of that use came from the power generation industry.

Feldman said states like Alabama and Georgia are already looking for additional sources of water for their growing populations. He said Tennessee must be prepared for possible court challenges in the future, to preserve its water resources from thirsty neighboring states. The fear is that if states downstream from Tennessee take more than their fair share of water, and Tennessee files suit to stop it, they won’t be able to prove in court that they have a legitimate need for the full volume of water, Feldman said.

“Information is a form of legitimacy,” Feldman said. “If you can establish that you are using a certain volume of water, then you are establishing that you have a need to use that water, if there is ever a conflict between users in Tennessee and users outside of the state.”

The Tennessee Valley Authority recently launched a two-year study of its usage of water from the Tennessee River.

Feldman said state leaders need that information to help plan future development in Tennessee.

“We know that we’re growing, that there are more people living in the state, so if we know how much water people are using, we can track changes in that use over time,” Feldman said. “Then we can know where we’re going to need more water, and work out better ways of managing demand.”

Feldman said Tennessee users aren’t the only ones who need to be monitored.

“We’ve been historically blessed by having a lot of water and we’re an upstream state relative to most of our neighbors,” Feldman said. “We have a lot of demands on the water, not just from people within Tennessee, but as we increasingly recognize, people from out of the state as well.”