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Cullman plans to tap river in Morgan legal, lawyers say

By M.J. Ellington (334) 262-1104

Cullman County's purchase of land in Morgan County on the Tennessee River and its plans to pipe water back home may be a surprise, but do not violate a 2006 law to protect the river.

Lawmakers who helped negotiate a 2006 Morgan County law that gives Cullman some access to Morgan water said the estimated limits are within the agreed-on amounts and were key to the success of the measure's passage last spring.

But the purchase and the plans surprised Cullman Mayor Don Green, who said Wednesday that city and county officials in his county always worked together on plans for water needs in the past.

"From our perspective, it appears that the county is going out on a tangent by themselves," Green said. "Bringing water out of the Tennessee River may be a good thing, but if they are going to do this, we all need to sit down and work on this together. Eventually we will."

Cullman County Commission could close as early as this week on the purchase of 26 acres along the Tennessee River, near Valhermoso Springs. The sale would give the Cullman County Water Department a conduit to bring home up to 16 million gallons of water from the river within about five years.

Even if the Cullman deal goes forward, the county must get approval from Tennessee Valley Authority, the state Department of Environmental Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before it proceeds.

"The term is de minimis, a Latin word that means so minimal as not to bear consideration," Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville, said of the amount of the Cullman proposal.

An attorney, McLaughlin first sought a law to protect water levels on the Tennessee along Lake Guntersville and Marshall County almost five years ago.

McLaughlin heads a Tennessee Valley coalition of lawmakers and other officials from counties that border the river from Fort Payne to the Shoals area. The coalition worked to secure local river protection laws that apply until Alabama develops a law that covers the whole state.

In contrast to Cullman's current proposal, McLaughlin said, his original bill for Lake Guntersville and Marshall County came after Blount County bought land along Lake Guntersville and planned to tap up to 200 million gallons of water a day to pipe back to Blount County.

Water usage

The amount far exceeded water use estimates for that county for the next 50 years. McLaughlin was concerned that Blount wanted to become a water broker to other areas.

For comparison, McLaughlin said, Cullman's current water proposal is still less than the amount of water his county uses in one day. Cullman has a smaller population than Marshall County, he said.

But the situation with Cullman and Morgan counties is unusual, McLaughlin said. The 2006 Morgan County bill allowed the sale of some water to Cullman County, a long-time TVA water purchaser.

The Morgan law sets limits on how much water can go to Cullman County from the river and stipulates that Cullman cannot sell the water to other areas, McLaughlin said.

Started in 1930s

Cullman County began buying water from TVA in the 1930s. And in a situation that may be unique among Alabama counties, Cullman provides water for some customers in Morgan County and Morgan provides for some Cullman customers.

Rep. Bill Dukes, D-Decatur, sponsored the legislation for Morgan's bill. He does not believe the current proposal will threaten Morgan County.

Rep. Ronald Grantland, D-Hartselle, whose House district includes portions of Morgan and Cullman counties, agrees with Dukes and McLaughlin.

"The footprint of existing service was already there with Cullman County," McLaughlin said.

The TVA history was a legitimate reason to include Cullman and helped assure passage of the river bills, McLaughlin said.

"We want Cullman as an ally," McLaughlin said. "The Tennessee Valley solved its water issues. Now the state needs to solve the issues for other parts of the state."

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