TVA, state officials review city's request for permit to take water from Watauga River

By Julie Fann
Star staff

City, county and state officials decided on Monday to expand the territory of the city's request for a permit from the Tennessee Valley Authority to obtain water from the Watauga River for residential use. In a meeting of the Watauga River Regional Water Authority, officials agreed the request should extend beyond the city of Elizabethton and include a wider region.
   "I submitted the request to the city because I was receiving calls from customers who weren't getting any water at all during the drought. We think only about the ground water supply, when we've got this river right next to us," said Ted Leger, Public Works Director for the city. Six to eight months after Leger submitted his request, the city met last night with representatives from the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Army Corps of Engineers, and a representative from the State Department of Environment and Conservation, to discuss long-range plans concerning the water supply for the greater Elizabethton area.
   In its permit request, which cost $1,000, the city told the TVA that it needs anywhere from eight million to 16 million gallons of water a day from the Watauga River to supply its residents over a 20 to 30-year period. TVA representative Tandy S. Hobbs said that the request will need to be reviewed by the Upper Holston Watershed team to assess who, exactly, needs the permit.
   "If you're going to request 16 million gallons of water, we're going to need more evidence of need," Hobbs said. Hobbs also said that a request for such a large amount of water can have a large environmental impact. She said the TVA expressed concern for the damage to aquatic life and diversity that could result from draining that much water from the Watauga River. As a result, the permit will also go to a TVA Environmental Review board. That will mean an additional cost for the city.
   Hobbs also explained that the permit request falls under TVA article 26.A which says that the permit does not approve the availability of water, but whether or not the pipe used to transport it would be an obstruction (to the flow of the river). City officials then re-assessed the need for 16 million gallons of water per day and decided on a more exact and "reasonable" amount -- 12 million gallons of water per day for the next 20 to 30 years. Leger and city and county representatives negotiated numbers.
   City officials said the water, which would be drawn from above the river's flood plain, is clean. All parties agreed on another meeting in early May to assess the area's needs for water. Gay Irwin, who works for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, explained that the city and county will need to pull together as much information as possible concerning water needs. For example, she asked David Ornduff, Director of Planning and Development for the city of Elizabethton, to review the city's Urban Growth Plan, so that long-term expectations can be factored into the big picture.
   Irwin also said that it would be best for the city to take action within the next six months due to current state water withdrawal legislation that is under consideration. Irwin said, "We need to turn now to larger water sources, aside from wells and springs, to get water." However, state authorities govern those bodies of water, so that obtaining them involves a much more difficult process.