Water Authority project flooded by red tape

By Julie Fann
star staff

Members of the newly formed Watauga Regional Water Authority yesterday faced heavy governmental and bureaucratic red tape in their goal toward using the Watauga River as a regional source of water. The WRWA met with representatives from the state, the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) and the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss details concerning what it will take to get a permit to withdraw 16 million gallons of water a day from the river.
   County Executive Truman Clark seemed overwhelmed at the end of the informational meeting. "I wonder if Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett knew that in 2002 we'd be talking about the Watauga River this way," he said. The meeting was held at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.
   TVA officials, the Army Corps of Engineers and the state outlined their requirements for the three-part permit. If the permit is approved by each entity, the city will build a water plant near the Watauga River Industrial Park, a project estimated to cost $48 million.
   Requirements for permit approval are:
   --a study of the impact to local fisheries;
   --a study to determine environmental impact;
   --a study conducted by the State Historical Commission to assess archaeological concern;
   --a study of the flow of water for dilution of Johnson City waste water, and
   --an analysis to determine need.
   A TVA representative told the Water Authority they could use a TVA consultant to conduct the required environmental study or use an outside consultant. Gaye Irwin, a representative from TDEC (Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation), who acts as a liaison between the WRWA and the agencies involved, encouraged the TVA and ECA to submit something in writing to the city of Elizabethton that will outline the results of the needs-assessment once it is finished. She also explained that a request for 16 million gallons of water is a peak projection. "It's an estimation of future need, not average pumpage, and it is also in anticipation of residential and industrial growth," she said. Irwin said other municipalities may decide to become involved in the project in the future.
   When asked about public concern over the ability to treat such a large amount of water to make it safe for drinking, local engineers nodded in agreement that it wouldn't be a problem, and Irwin lauded the safety of Watauga River water. "It is a public misconception that ground water is safer for drinking. Really, surface water is safer. Besides, water from one ground well can be perfectly clean, while water from a different ground water source can be unfit even for pets to drink out of," she said.
   Ted Leger, Public Works Director for the city of Elizabethton, said the real problem is money. "It all boils down to dollars. It costs money to clean this water, etc. Who decides that it's too expensive?" The WRWA is dependent upon federal dollars to fund the project, a situation that could prove to be a sinkhole if federal dollars aren't approved.
   "Money we have coming in right now is not in the proper pipeline from the federal government. We really need someone who has a water background to help us with this project, but we need to make sure the money is there first," County Executive Clark said. Clark postponed the next WRWA meeting while the board assesses funds for the project.
   Due to a four-year severe shortage of spring and well water, the city of Elizabethton last summer submitted a request to the Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw water from the Watauga River. The request led to the formation of the WRWA, a board made up of local utility directors and government officials to create a wider base of representatives. However, now that the city's request is technically under the auspices of the WRWA, the Army Corps of Engineers said the permit application will need to be resubmitted under the new name.