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Clockwise, from upper left: Thanos Papanicolaou, Jon Hathaway, Chris Wilson, and John Schwartz.

Ask someone in Tennessee about drought concerns or shortages of clean water and you are likely to hear comments about Africa, the current crisis facing California, or maybe even memories of the recent squabble between the state and Georgia over water rights on the Tennessee River.

What most people don’t realize, however, is the problem is closer to home.

Eight counties in East Tennessee have areas that the National Drought Mitigation Center classifies as being “abnormally dry,” with an additional five counties in West Tennessee having that distinction.

Now, thanks to a program being funded in conjunction with the US Department of Agriculture, researchers at UT are helping lead a study on how best to avoid problems facing California and other areas.

The study involves the Tennessee and Cumberland River basins. Tennessee researchers and extension personnel hope to model water use and suggest management changes that may improve water availability in Tennessee and across the Southeast.

“Dramatic changes in water use are already occurring in the area, and further climate change may pose significant challenges to traditional methods of water allocation,” said Forbes Walker, principal investigator for the $4.9 million study and an environmental scientist with UT’s Institute of Agriculture.

“The findings of this study should help Tennessee and Southeastern farmers and communities make intelligent water use decisions before they face a crisis situation.”

A team from the College of Engineering—which includes Thanos Papanicolaou, John Schwartz, Jon Hathaway, and Chris Wilson—will focus on how the state’s agricultural sector will be situated with regard to water resources in the future.

Papanicolaou will oversee the project, with Schwartz managing the database, Hathaway doing fieldwork, and Wilson doing fieldwork and outreach. All are in civil and environmental engineering.

Titled “Increasing the Resilience of Agricultural Production in the Tennessee and Cumberland River Basins Through More Efficient Water Resource Use,” the study will take a look at a number of issues and scenarios facing agriculture in the state in the coming years, from agricultural methods to land use to changes in weather patterns.

Working from a proposal approved by the USDA, the team also will be looking at how the state’s unique geography and geology play into its water systems.

Researchers from Tennessee Technological University and the University of Memphis will help fill out the team, giving Middle and West Tennessee representation and providing insight into those areas.

“We are a very diverse state hydrogeologically, and that presents both challenges and rewards,” said Papanicolaou, the Henry Goodrich Chair of Excellence in civil and environmental engineering at UT and leader of UT’s portion of the study. “Because of that wealth of biodiversity, we will be able to look at microcosms throughout the state and apply what we’ve learned elsewhere.

“We’ll be able to look at how agribusiness is affected, not just in day-to-day settings but also based off extreme events such as drought and flooding.”

Another big issue facing the team is the one that led to the Tennessee-Georgia dispute: urbanization.

In that case, Atlanta’s growth, compounded by lower-than-normal rainfall totals, meant that one of the country’s biggest cities had outgrown its water resource needs.

While no city in Tennessee is the size of Atlanta, vast areas in the state that used to be wilderness and wetlands are being urbanized, stripping the land of vital ways in which water levels were historically maintained.

“It goes without saying that if you have more people, you need more places for them to live, which in turn takes away land that was traditionally used for other things, like farming,” said Papanicolaou, who is also director of the Hydraulics and Sedimentation Laboratory at UT. “It is also important to see how that is affecting the state and its water as we continue to change how and where our people live.”

The first step for the team will be to set up monitoring of the major waterways, with the eventual goal of using the data and the models generated to better inform agribusiness in the state, from farming to forestry.

In doing so, the team hopes to be able to forecast water needs for each of those sectors, providing water stability for the state, its economy, and its people.


David Goddard (865-974-0683,