Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Water Wars: The Conflict Over Water Among the Southern and Western States

By: Dianne Heath


This is a reprint of an article that I wrote in November 2009 for The Hill: Chapel Hill Political Review. It provides a snapshot of how the recession can result in vulnerability to natural occurrences such as droughts and incite interstate conflict. Although the information is a bit dated, the themes still ring true in the present when there is a “war” over allocating resources and implementing such legislation.

The “Great” Recession Increases Competition for Natural Resources such as Water
As the economy continues to languish, with high unemployment and reduced consumer spending, local lawmakers across the country are scrambling to find relief. In western and southern states especially, access to water is a crucial, yet increasingly scarce lifeline in pulling states’ economies out of the recession. However, as drought and ‘water wars’ between the states linger, the economically dire circumstances serve to exacerbate an already strained situation.

Georgia vs. Alabama vs. Florida
Although the drought in the South is notably declining, a recent ruling gave Atlanta three years to end the water wars with Florida and Alabama. Also, it restricts Atlanta’s use of the Lanier River to the same consumption level as in the 1970s, creating the potential for an economic setback. “It would perhaps have a Katrina-sized effect on the metro economy,” said Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “We’ve got to make sure this gets solved before the ultimate deadline hits us.” There are concerns that construction will gradually halt, attracting companies to Atlanta will become almost impossible and water rates will sharply increase. On the other hand, the ruling is an unadulterated victory for Florida and Alabama because it ensures a more equitable share of water access. After 18 years, the water wars between these states over the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River Basin have racked up million in legal fees. Much is at stake, including environmental risks which caused Florida and Alabama to accuse Georgia of violating the Endangered Species Act. Alabama relies on Lake Lanier for energy, both to maintain a nuclear plant and for hydro-power. Florida’s governor is frustrated by what he perceives as the unlimited use Lanier River by Georgia for drinking water. Meanwhile, Florida and Alabama fisheries, farms and municipalities lose millions in revenue from lack of quality water. As Florida accuses Georgia of ignoring demands and Georgia accuses Florida of deception, tensions are running high.

Water shortages hinder agricultural and industrial production.
California and Colorado
With a mountain of debt, bankrupt cities and high unemployment, California officials feel the pressure of the drought now more than ever. There is a clash of ideologies as lawmakers confront different sets of values, priorities and ideas. Republican members of Congress proposed suspending the Endangered Species Act in order to lift restrictions on pumping water; however the legislation was blocked. A proposal that potentially diverted water from California’s rural San Joaquin valley to San Francisco found an opponent in Iowa,  representative Steve King, who said that the measure throws “dust in the face of the hardworking people in the valley,” illustrating the complex relationship between ideology, national politics and local needs. Just as in the Southern water wars, there is also conflict between corporations and citizens, as Nestle eyes the water springs near Salida, Colorado. In the past, courts have more often than not ruled in favor of companies and tempers flare as citizens cite the overuse of water for unnecessary commercial purposes.


A Step Towards Working Together
In the war for limited resources, it remains to be seen whether states will be able to cooperate and solve the legal issues before the industries dependent on water crumple and go bankrupt. The Lower Yuba River Accord, an agreement reached in California that more equitably distributes water resources, proves that with hard work and the understanding of each other needs, compromise is achievable. The accord has determined a method for rotating water according the needs of the fish and the crops after studying their reproductive cycle and general behavior. Perhaps the Lower Yuba River Accord can set the precedent for the water wars between Alabama, Georgia and Florida as well as California and Colorado.

Photo Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.Net
Photo Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.Net

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