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CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Pumping Tennessee River water to Atlanta could lead to environmental and legal problems, participants in a regional water conference here said Wednesday.

The pipeline — one of many controversial water projects discussed this week at the University of Tennessee’s Southeast Water Resources Symposium — could upset nature habitat, said Dr. Henry Spratt, a UT-Chattanooga biologist.

“The Tennessee River Gorge is an unspoiled wildlife habitat area just downstream of Chattanooga that has the river running right through it,” Spratt said. “Anything to reduce that flow, particularly during drought, might have a negative impact on the gorge.

“We must be really careful that a pipeline to pump water out of the Tennessee River does not do so at the detriment of the gorge. We don’t know how much could safely be pumped out. We have to do more studies.”

The pipeline could spread destructive invasive species such as the zebra mussel from Tennessee to Georgia, he said.

“We know the zebra mussel is in the Tennessee River system,” Spratt said. “This pipeline could become a portal for the it to get into the Chattahoochee-Flint River system. Right now there is no link, but if we create a link, the zebra mussel will get there.”

Dr. David Feldman, a UT-Knoxville environmental policy analyst who headed the conference, said Atlanta’s water is supplied by the Chattahoochee River, part of the Appalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint system.

Population growth and drought in 1988 prompted Atlanta and Georgia officials to consider alternative water sources — including the Tennessee River — to meet increasing water demand, Feldman said.

Legal problems of such a project were illustrated at the conference when North Carolina water resources director John Morris gave an unscheduled presentation criticizing a similar pipeline which recently began pumping North Carolina water to Virginia Beach.

Morris disputed data from Virginia officials about the amount of water being pumped, and said Virginia officials balked on agreements to give North Carolina a say in future water diversion projects and protect North Carolinians from water shortages during drought.

Feldman said the disagreement shows the potential for legal problems in a Tennessee River-Atlanta pipeline.

“We are finding that basic information about water supply, water use, water quality and water demand are still highly debatable,” Feldman said. “The decision-making process must be inclusive of all relative interests and include wide consultation and coordination before any decision is made.

“This conference has been a first step in establishing that type of dialogue not only between Chattanooga and Atlanta, but between all the relevant participants in the process of managing the region’s water.”

Contact: Dr. David Feldman (423-974-4086) or Dr. Henry Spratt (423-755-4383)