Water Wars in the southeast

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Water Wars Drought-Ridden Southeast Battles Over Use of Rivers By Oliver Yates Libaw

Aug. 14  A messy water war is pitting three drought-ravaged states against each other and the Supreme Court may be forced to settle the matter. Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been fighting for years over two river systems that give life to the Southeast. In 1997 they agreed to form an interstate compact to hammer out an agreement on how the rivers should be used. But now, three years, five extensions and at least $20 million later, theres no agreement in sight. If they cant break the stalemate, the Supreme Court will likely be called upon to impose an agreement  a prospect none of the states relish. Currently, there is no interstate system in place for managing the river systems and balancing these competing interests, which directly affect some 6 million people in the region.

Perhaps the only thing the sides agree upon now is that there simply will not be enough water to satisfy every interest group in each state. Battle No. 1 is between Georgia and Alabama for control of the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) river basin; battle No. 2 is over the massive Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin. (ABCNEWS.com/ Magellan Geographix)

Oysters vs. Water Skiers? Battle No. 1 is between Georgia and Alabama for control of the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) river basin  a sprawling complex of rivers that extends about 320 miles from northwest Georgia down diagonally to near the southwest corner of Alabama. All three states are involved in a second battle over the massive Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin, which runs down the Alabama-Georgia border into the Florida coast.

Florida says its primarily worried about ensuring a clean, adequate water supply for Apalachicola Bay, which produces 70 percent of the states oysters, and remains a largely unspoiled natural preserve. The environmental organization American Rivers describes the two basins as among the most biodiverse freshwater systems in the country, home to hundreds of native fish and aquatic species. It ranks them fifth on its list of most endangered rivers in the nation. Georgia, meanwhile, is focusing on urban supply issues, farming, hydroelectric power production, and lake levels, which affect water recreation and drought reserves. Since the rivers originate in Georgia, the state has the right to reasonable use of the water as it sees fit, says its chief negotiator, Bob Kerr, who is also an official with the states Department of Natural Resources. He says Georgias only responsibility is to return as much water as it can to the river, in the cleanest state as it can. The other states want a say in how Georgia uses the water, because they claim it affects them downstream. Kerr says the dispute centers on how to manage water resources during drought conditions; Florida and Alabamas negotiators believe the issues include management in normal weather conditions. Metropolitan Atlanta gets some 70 percent of its drinking water from the Chattahoochee River and releases more than 250 million gallons of treated wastewater back into the river each day. Downriver, Alabama is most concerned with ensuring a water supply for future economic and population growth, says Richard Hanan, one of Alabamas representatives in the negotiations. We feel weve bent over backwards to accommodate our sister states, but were not willing to give away the store, he says.

Drought Makes Talks Tougher Disputes over use of rivers and other water sources are well-known out West, particularly in the dry climates of Arizona and Southern California, but the same issues are now affecting states which once took their water supplies for granted.

Growing development in the region has made water supplies an issue since the 1980s and the current 3-year-old drought has turned the problem into a crisis, while demonstrating the importance of a plan to manage the scarce and precious resource. The drought caught us with our pants down says Matt Kales, a program manager with the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an environmental group. Georgia imposed statewide water rationing because of the drought. Many parts of the region are facing the worst drought theyve seen in decades, and in some cases the worst ever seen. Crops in all three states have been completely destroyed, says Mark Svoboda, an analyst with the National Drought Mitigation Center. Georgia is pretty much ground zero of the drought, he says. The University of Georgias Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development puts the cost of the drought at $739 million for this year alone, with crop production down about 39 percent from normal levels. And while the Southeast is historically a wet region  where 50 inches of rain a year is typical  many regions are reporting only a fraction of that amount this year, the third straight year of drought the area has seen, says David Stooksbury, Georgias state climatologist, who is also a professor at the University of Georgia. Even with occasional thunderstorms, the regions drought persists. John Abendroth, a staff member with Floridas negotiating team, says the current drought could be a wake-up call to the region to establish a realistic policy to deal with water shortages in the future. Look at what its doing to us now. Imagine if it was like this all the time, he says.

High-Stakes Negotiations There is a lot at stake in the current negotiations. If they fail, and the dispute is sent to the Supreme Court for resolution, it will be years before the matter is resolved. That would mean years of uncertainty over the water supply, without a centralized plan to allocate water resources the next time drought strikes.

What an agreement does for everyone is provide a level of confidence  what they can expect in the future, says Kerr. Even worse, bickering among the states and the various agencies and interest groups could mean vital environmental or economic interests will be neglected. The parties involved say they believe an agreement can be reached and a lengthy Supreme Court battle can be avoided. Former U.S. Rep. Lindsay Thomas, President Clintons appointee to the negotiating committees, has called for a mediator to help break the impasse.

Still no one seems to know what that compromise will look like. There are all these different demands and most of them are only increasing, admits Abendroth, with Floridas negotiating team. Our hope is that we just keep plugging away at this.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), August 15, 2000

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