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Could Tenn-Tom be tapped for drought relief?

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com · (334) 262-1104

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 believe.

Don Waldon, director of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority in Columbus, Miss., said the Tenn- Tom was built as a source of inland transportation, recreation 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 takes permission.”

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, Weldon said.

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 water.

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 states.

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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