Could Tenn-Tom be tapped for drought relief?
By M.J. Ellington
MONTGOMERY — As the water war heated between Alabama and Georgia, some people eyed a comparatively sleepy waterway on the state’s western border and wondered about its potential as a water source.
Governors of Alabama and Georgia took their disagreements over how to apportion water in a lake reservoir north of Atlanta to the White House. But to the west, barges and pleasure boats sailed along the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway that snakes its way through Alabama and Mississippi.
Only a few communities on either side tap the waterway for municipal water, and experts say there is not much talk about using the Tenn-Tom for anything other than navigation.
As states get thirstier in the worst drought conditions recorded in 100 years, some people eye the 234-mile waterway operating at one-third of its planned capacity and wonder two things.
Should the state look to the Tenn-Tom, now used by pleasure boats more than industrial barges, as a potential source of water for drinking and irrigation? Is the waterway, with its series of man-made locks and dams, the possible source for the next state water war, this time with western neighbor Mississippi?
Experts say “possibly” to the first question. And about the
second, well, water wars with
Mississippi are not likely, they
Don Waldon, director of the
Development Authority in
Columbus, Miss., said the Tenn-
Tom was built as a source of inland
and conservation, not drinking
water. Costing nearly $2 billion,
the Tenn-Tom opened in 1984 after
12 years of construction.
But as drought conditions
linger, Weldon said, he expects
the issue to come up more.
There are dams along the waterway,
but he said the dams do
not have the capacity to contain
large lakes that might store reserves
of drinking water.
“I don’t predict any battles
like (the one) going on between
Alabama and Georgia, but I suspect
there are some issues that
will come up about water use,”
he said. “It was not part of the
original purpose. Doing that
In the last 10 years, two cities
in Mississippi began tapping
the Tenn-Tom for water. Weldon
said Tupelo and Columbus pull
from 20 million to 25 million gallons
per day from the canal. He
said officials in Northeast Mississippi
have shown some interest
in using the waterway.
Both Mississippi and Alabama
could, in theory, pull water
from the Tenn-Tom with proper
approval as long as doing so
does not interfere with navigation
or pose threats to the environment,
The port at Decatur is one of
the busiest along the waterways
that link the Tenn-Tom in Alabama
and Mississippi, but Weldon
said even at the busy local
port, products now shipped are
different from in the past.
Once a route for shipping cotton
and forestry products, Weldon
said, the waterway hauls
loads of steel and composite materials
for high-tech industry. As
the area’s industry continues to
shift toward more high-tech
products, he expects the waterway’s
traffic will increase.
Designed shipping capacity
for the waterway is 30 million
tons per year. Weldon said use is
about one-third of that amount.
“We are not shipping as many
rockets out of Decatur as Boeing
originally thought, but there
is plenty of capacity for more
traffic, and we expect that to
happen in the next couple of
years,” he said.
Weldon said presence of the
waterway helped attract employers
like Boeing to Alabama
and the ThyssenKrupp steel
plant in Mobile County required
such transportation as
well, he said.
Gov. Bob Riley agrees.
Riley said the waterway will
be an important source of transportation
as the state’s industrial
base grows. And he said the
state uses the Tenn-Tom as a
marketing tool to interest industry
in North Alabama.
The governor said he does not
recall consideration of the waterway
as a source for drinking
water or irrigation.
Brian Atkins, director of the
Alabama Office of Water Resources,
said his office is studying
the state’s river basins to
find out how much water is
available in each basin’s rivers
and how much is used in each
area. The deliberations so far do
not include the waterway as a
source of irrigation or drinking
Atkins said the first river
basin under study is the Tennessee,
but results will not be in
for two to five years. Southeast
Alabama may be the next area
his office studies.
Atkins said he considers the
studies a key step in developing
a state water-use plan. No plan
exists now, a fact that brings Alabama
criticism from other
The Tenn-Tom, heralded at
ceremonies marking its completion
as the spur needed to bring
economic development to West
Alabama, remains an untapped
question mark in the hunt for
ways to relieve drought.
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