Regional approach helps deal with drought
Tumbleweeds blowing across dusty roads in a hot wind.
Dry streambeds and acres upon acres of parched, cracked earth.
Here? In the water-rich Tennessee Valley?
Clichéd Hollywood imagery aside, the fact remains that our region is suffering from drought. According to the National Weather Service, widespread areas in different parts of the Valley are now considered to be in moderate, severe, or extreme drought. The governor of North Carolina has directed state agencies in 12 western North Carolina counties to stop nonessential water use and asked all North Carolina residents to take shorter showers, limit car washing, and take other steps to help conserve water. Tennessee is under a statewide burning ban.
And it doesn’t look like the situation is going to get better any time soon. Hydrologists reviewing the near-term climate outlook say there is an “above normal likelihood” that drought conditions will continue, though at what level remains to be seen.
All of which begs a few questions:
Just how dry does it have to be to be officially considered a “drought"?
What kinds of conditions have to exist in order for states to declare a moderate, severe, extreme, or even an exceptional drought?
What is the range of potential impacts that might result from drought conditions within the Tennessee Valley?
And, most importantly, what steps are being taken (or should be taken in the future) by Valley states and TVA in response to drought conditions?
Those are just some of the issues that the Tennessee Valley Water Partnership is seeking to address.
The group was formed a little over two years ago to improve regional cooperation in water resource management and includes representatives from Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, as well as agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey. TVA serves as host and facilitator for the group, which convenes on a regular basis to look for common ground with regard to water quantity issues — all the while recognizing and respecting each state’s processes, interests, laws, and regulations.
TVA Water Supply Manager Gene Gibson sees great value in encouraging regular dialogue and establishing open channels of communication between state agencies. This collaborative approach is particularly worthwhile, he maintains, because of the fact that water flows across geopolitical boundaries. “Watersheds cross state lines,” says Gibson. “We are dealing with natural systems that don’t follow man-made jurisdictions. Effective drought management plans have to reflect this reality.”
Normally the Partnership meets quarterly, says Gibson, but members recently decided to hold weekly teleconferences to discuss current drought conditions and anticipated impacts, as well as to coordinate various mitigation measures being taken by TVA and state and local agencies.
Gibson outlines some of the issues the states are discussing through the framework of the Partnership: “We’re dealing with matters such as when and how to alert the public to drought conditions, determining when to transition from asking folks to voluntarily curtail water use to making it mandatory, and deciding what to do in response to violations. Without a regional perspective, these topics become problematic. For example, drought conditions may exist throughout a particular watershed that sits astride a state line. One state has imposed water conservation measures, while the other has not. In the absence of a coordinated response to drought conditions, people living in the ‘downstream’ state may experience water shortages.”
A number of Valley states are working on or have completed individual drought plans. The Partnership is reviewing those plans and seeking input from water managers in other basins on how their systems are operated during drought conditions. A regional drought management protocol, with buy-in from the various states, is being developed by TVA for Partnership consideration.
Important though it may be, regional drought planning is just part of a bigger picture — one that Partnership members keep uppermost in their minds. “The larger issue is water supply,” says Gibson. “Water quality has had its share of much-deserved attention, and now water quantity is also coming to the forefront. It’s being driven by the recognition that rapidly increasing development has the potential to impact a finite — albeit traditionally abundant — resource.”
It’s also a shared resource, says Gibson. As he points out, “We’re all drinking out of the same trough.” He feels that TVA’s Valley-wide perspective can be particularly helpful in this respect and notes that the agency has a key role to play in responding to drought conditions. “We are mindful of the fact that the water we’re talking about belongs to the states; TVA just manages it. Our efforts with regard to flood control have long been acknowledged, but few people stop to think that TVA also has a responsibility to operate the reservoir system appropriately during periods of drought. It’s all about managing the extremes.”
TVA’s operation of the reservoir system impacts everything from the environment to economic development to public health, says Gibson. “For example, we release agreed-upon ‘minimum flows’ to protect aquatic habitat and prevent riverbed dry-out. We issue permits to industries for the structures they use to withdraw water from and return water to the river. We maintain adequate navigation depths for commercial river traffic. And last, but certainly not least, over four million people depend upon the Tennessee River system for drinking water. That’s an awesome responsibility, and it is one that TVA does not take lightly.”
Drought conditions pose special challenges for TVA. When rainfall is low, it becomes more difficult to get reservoirs to “summer pool” (targeted summer operating levels) by the Memorial Day weekend. When the weather is dry and hot, TVA may have to make adjustments in hydro release schedules and/or plant operating schedules to ensure that the waste heat discharged from fossil and nuclear plants doesn’t cause temperatures in the stretches of river below those plants to exceed their environmental permit limits. Also, less water is available for hydropower, which means that other, more expensive generating sources may be needed to make up the difference.
Additional impacts may result from prolonged drought conditions. Taste and odor problems may occur due to increased algal growth at water-supply intakes. Low flows can accelerate aquatic weed growth, which may cause clogging of water intakes. Industrial discharges could be affected, since less water is available to dilute effluents. Recreational releases such as those for whitewater rafting could be impacted. There is also an increased potential for fish and mussel die-offs during times of drought.
“TVA is committed to looking out for the public’s best interest with regard to water supply,” says Gibson. “We understand the value of a reliable and safe supply of water to the people of the Valley, and also the fact that this value changes, depending upon the relative abundance or scarcity of the resource. The days of taking water for granted are over. We’re fortunate to live in a region blessed with water, but that doesn’t mean we can afford to assume that our historically abundant supply will last forever.
“The steps we’re taking to manage the Valley’s water supply will ensure that plenty of water will be available for the responsible use of future generations. By working closely with the Tennessee Valley Water Partnership, we hope to gain important insights into the dynamics of this issue with respect to our region — viewpoints which we believe will be extremely useful when it comes to making water supply decisions.”