It’s easy to take water for granted in the United States. After all, we have our pick of dozens of types of bottled water in every supermarket, bodega and drugstore — not to mention various filtration systems and plain old tap water. Walk into many restaurants, and immediately you will be presented with a choice of still, sparkling or spring water.
And yet even here water scarcity can produce dramatic conflicts. Case in point: On Jan. 8, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a long-simmering conflict between Florida and Georgia about how to allocate water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin.
In Florida v. Georgia, Florida is arguing that Georgia’s withdrawals for drinking water and irrigation are wreaking ecological havoc on downstream Apalachicola Bay and have destroyed the area’s commercial fisheries. Georgia insists that these withdrawals are reasonable and necessary to fuel the state’s agricultural economy and sustain metropolitan Atlanta’s growth. The struggle has dragged on for decades, and the stakes are high.
This conflict sounds like something out of the arid West. But its long history shows how water insecurity plagues even humid regions commonly assumed to have plentiful water resources. And it shows how some decisions and “solutions” have only made problems worse — creating increased demand for water while failing to protect waterways from pollution.
Despite its reputation as a wet region, the Southeast has always fluctuated between periods of drought and flooding. After the Civil War, private utility companies responded to this water insecurity by building hydroelectric dams to ensure a regular supply of water for generating electricity. Their system of dams and power lines fueled an industrial boom, but it was never enough to resolve the region’s water woes — a fact underlined by a multiyear drought beginning in 1924, followed by devastating floods in 1927 and 1929.
By the 1930s, as drought and economic depression settled over the Southeast, water security became the domain of the federal government through public works projects that promised to create jobs while bringing nature under the control of experts. Under the aegis of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers, federal officials remade Southern waterways with massive dam-building projects that were intended to promote navigation, prevent flooding and generate power.
Policymakers considered how federal projects might bring water security to the ACF River Basin. In 1939, the Army Corps of Engineers, aiming to free the region from natural cycles of drought and flooding, proposed 12 dams and reservoirs that it believed would minimize flooding, provide ample water in times of drought, promote unimpeded navigation and provide cheap electricity.
World War II delayed these plans, but in 1950 Congress authorized the construction of a single dam across the Chattahoochee River at Buford, Ga., just 30 miles north of downtown Atlanta. Yet, instead of preventing flooding and drought, the completion of Buford Dam in 1956 and downstream reservoirs in the 1960s triggered a scramble by a host of stakeholders — in Atlanta and beyond — to take advantage of the regularized flow for municipal water, sewerage, irrigation and recreation. The result was actually significantly increased water demand.
Just six years after Buford Dam was dedicated, in the wake of another major drought, a congressional river basin commission noted that these new uses were already straining water supplies in the basin. The commission’s report projected that by 2000 the Atlanta metro area would require more water than the Corps of Engineers could supply, and it worried that municipalities were not taking steps to secure other sources.
The river basin commission also called attention to the ACF’s poor water quality. Pollution from individual, municipal and industrial users in the Atlanta metro area was rampant, and pollutants were concentrated by drought conditions. But this pollution wasn’t just affecting metro Atlanta. Almost five decades before Florida filed the current suit seeking to reallocate water in the basin, residents there were complaining that water pollution from upstream Georgia was harming the Apalachicola River.
Because water law in the Southeast mandates that users make reasonable use of common waters, the commission’s 1963 warning should have prompted cooperation among the basin’s stakeholders. All should have agreed to moderate demand to secure a sustainable supply that could satisfy everyone’s needs and protect the economic and environmental health of the ACF River Basin.
But to many Southerners, the commission looked like yet another unwelcome federal interloper in the age of civil rights and desegregation — something anathema in the land of states’ rights. So stakeholders simply ignored this warning and kept on using water as they saw fit — which led to skyrocketing demands on the basin.
Irrigated acreage alone has ballooned 15-fold since 1960 as farmers turned to irrigation to grow corn, peanuts and cotton. And despite recent success in promoting water conservation for individual users, municipalities in metro Atlanta are projected to require 899 million gallons per day in 2050, as more people flock to the city and Fortune 500 corporations such as Amazon look for new headquarters.
Rather than limiting withdrawals from Lake Lanier (the lake behind Buford Dam) and the Chattahoochee River, the Corps of Engineers gave metropolitan Atlanta the green light to tap more water on multiple occasions between 1958 and 2017 to satisfy demand. Downstream neighbors interpreted these decisions as detrimental to their interests and preferential to Georgia. Despite a brief attempt to negotiate a resolution in the 1990s, litigation between states over water has been the norm.
After nearly three decades of courtroom battles, in 2009, some residents from Alabama, Florida and Georgia decided to do what no courtroom or governor had been able or willing to do for years: resolve the tri-state “water wars” by sitting down to talk, listen and learn.
The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Stakeholders — representatives of agricultural, municipal, industrial, environmental and other sectors from the basin (one of the authors of this piece is a stakeholder) — worked for six years to demonstrate that there is enough water for all users under the right environmental and operational conditions.
In 2015, they presented a Sustainable Water Management Plan to state and federal decision-makers. The plan includes six critical recommendations to improve data collection and drought management, alter operations of the Corps’ five dams and reservoirs, add storage to Lake Lanier and reduce water withdrawals and maximize conservation. To hold everything together, the plan recommended the creation of an overarching water management institution to facilitate coordination, manage data and build trust.
Locally, however, the plan largely fell flat. State leaders refused to make any commitments because the Supreme Court had already agreed to hear the case. But there is evidence that the court has evaluated the plan.
It’s worth noting that since 2014, Florida has spent $57 million litigating the water wars. Georgia has spent at least as much — tax dollars that could have been far better utilized. By contrast, the Stakeholders, a group of volunteers, spent a mere $1.7 million to develop their plan.
Water demands will continue to increase. And the cycles of drought and flooding will only get worse as the climate changes. This history underlines the necessity — and the difficult possibility — of bringing all stakeholders to the table to apportion shared water resources equitably.
The anticipated Supreme Court ruling will no doubt leave one or both parties unhappy. At that time there will be a way forward. The ACF Stakeholders have laid out a workable map, and leaders in Alabama, Florida and Georgia should embrace it.