Like Water for Airport Traffic

Georgia says it’ll let Chattanooga have a piece of its air economy in exchange for water.

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Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is one of the busiest in the country, with nearly 100 million passengers traveling to or through in 2011. And those numbers are on an upward trend, increasing from just about 90 million in 2008.*

As these numbers climb Atlanta is happy to absorb the additional economic benefit. But nearby Chattanooga is also interested in capturing some of that growth by luring more Atlanta-region passengers its way.

Normally, this is the point where the two cities would become foes, fighting to claim the right to the millions of dollars that could be brought in by taking on a larger share of the region’s airport traffic. But leaders in Georgia are taking a different approach. They’re not fighting; they’re negotiating.

In a recent talk, Georgia State Attorney General Sam Olens said the state would be happy to allow Chattanooga to absorb some of its air passenger growth in exchange for what’s become a much-needed resource in Georgia. Chattanooga can have the extra airport traffic, Olens says, as long as Tennessee is "open to the discussion that there's a pipe that comes into Georgia with water from the Tennessee River."

The river has long been a point of contention between the two states. A surveying error back in the 1800s led to the border between the states being drawn about a mile south of its intended path on the 35th parallel, making what would be a Georgia-side portion of the Tennessee River officially part of the state of Tennessee. Officials in both states have been arguing about the river’s jurisdiction ever since, including a recent effort by state legislators in Georgia to claim right to 6 percent of the river’s water.

Though seemingly small, that amount would not be insignificant for Georgia, which has been suffering through water shortages for years. It’s also in the midst of another water fight, this one against its other neighboring states of Alabama and Florida. Georgia wants to tap into the waters of Lake Lanier, a reservoir in Georgia, to feed growth in metropolitan Atlanta. But Alabama and Florida are trying to stop allocation of some of that water for fear that the amount of water able to flow farther downstream to their own populations will diminish. A 2009 ruling stated that Georgia couldn’t take the water, but last summer the 11th Circuit court overturned that ruling. Florida and Alabama are hoping to bring the case to the Supreme Court this year.

Olens says the battle between the three states is likely to end soon, with the Supreme Court refusing to hear the case. If that turns out to be true, Georgia may not even need to worry about reclaiming the water from the Tennessee River. But, just to play it safe, he seems willing to sacrifice the economic impact of a few more air passengers coming through Atlanta in order to potentially draw in more water to keep the city alive.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated annual traffic figures at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Annual passenger rates in 2010 and 2008 were nearly 100 million and 90 million, respectively, not nearly 10 million and 9 million, respectively.

Top image credit: Lars Lindblad / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.