River Recycled

The water of the Tennessee River basin is the most heavily used in the nation; it’s also the most recycled. Here’s how TVA Water Supply manages the river to keep it optimally balanced.

Sitting on the bank of the Tennessee River, watching the water flow peacefully by, it’s hard to imagine it: almost 12 billion gallons of water a day are removed for thermo-electrical cooling, industrial use, municipal water supplies or agricultural purposes.

That’s a lot of water being used. In fact, according to TVA and the United States Geological Survey, the Tennessee River system is the most heavily used in the U.S. in terms of gallons of water withdrawn per square mile—more than the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio or even the Colorado, which must provide so much irrigation for the western United States.

Thankfully, most of what gets used also gets returned. “Of the water that’s pulled from the Tennessee River system, 96 percent gets recycled back into it,” says Gary Springston, program manager for TVA’s Water Supply Program in River Management, which is a partner of Safety, River Management and Environment. “I like to say that the residents and water users of the Valley are good stewards and what they take out, they put back.”

That is not to say water use and reuse doesn’t come with some rules. Water users within the Tennessee Valley must comply with federal and state permitting, licensing and discharge requirements. Most water withdrawals and wastewater discharges in the Valley must be also be permitted through TVA’s Section 26a process. Likewise, the individual Valley states have permitting and discharge requirements that must be adhered to by the water users.

TVA itself is the biggest user in terms of water withdrawals, as it pulls from the river to provide cooling for its power plants. As an environmental steward of the Valley, TVA takes great care to ensure that the water that meets state wastewater requirements. Outside of TVA, the biggest water users are industrial, followed by municipal and agricultural.

As with everything that happens regarding the river, water supply is an ongoing balancing act. There are many things that can impact future water supplies in the Valley, including drought, population increases and changes in irrigation needs. Successfully managing any water supply requires teamwork. Springston points to the Tennessee Valley Water Partnership, founded in 2002 with encouragement from the Regional Resource Stewardship Council. “It is a partnership between TVA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Society and the seven Valley states: Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Mississippi and Virginia,” Springston says. “We meet regularly to address issues of common concern and make sure we are prepared to respond to any challenges regarding water use in the Tennessee Valley.”

The group also looks ahead toward the future. “One issue we are watching closely is the ongoing drought in the Southwest,” Springston notes. “There’s a possibility that as crops fail there, they may be moved back to the Southeast within the next 10 or 15 years. If that happens, we’ll be losing more water since very little water from irrigation returns to the river system.”

Regardless of the challenges, Springston and his colleagues are working to ensure that both the short and long term water needs are met throughout the Valley and allow for TVA to do it’s other river-related work—not just the cooling of its power plants, but flood control, navigation and recreation. So you’ll be able to sit on the bank of the Tennessee and watch the peaceful flow for generations to come.

Managing Water Supply

Part of TVA's river stewardship is not only managing the water system for flood control, navigation and recreation, but also to maintain adequate water supply for other crucial uses. There must be enough water available for TVA to cool its own nuclear and fossil power plants; to serve the industrial customers who keep our economy strong; and to support plant and animal life—including the drinking and cooking water that sustains human health. Read more about how TVA manages water supply to meet these demands.