by Whit Gibbons

November 24, 2003

Water is undeniably one of our most valuable and vital resources. The impending lawsuits between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida to determine who uses the water from the Chattahoochee River should confirm that water is precious. Could the Savannah River become a target for providing a long-distance water resource for Atlanta? After all, one bank of the river belongs to Georgia and the other to South Carolina. In fact, every river that touches two different states could become a battle zone for who owns what.

A recent book on the subject of natural waters addresses many of the issues that will have to be considered in such controversies, now and far into the future. The book, "Principles of Water Resources" (John Wiley & Sons, 2003) by Thomas V. Cech, seems suitable as a college textbook. But whether you are in a classroom or not, the book provides a foundation for understanding virtually all aspects of water, as part of the physical environment of the world and as a critical resource for all living things, especially humans. An overview of the book discloses some water issues that must be considered.

Halfway through the book is a chapter entitled "Water Allocation Law." The first point to be aware of when dealing with water wars is that written records in Babylonian law document that people have been fighting over water for thousands of years. Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates and including the region of Iraq, was one of the critical regions because of the low rainfall (about eight inches a year). According to the book, "multiple years of drought were common." If you are like me, thinking about having a drought when a normal year has less than a foot of rain sounds kind of ominous. The Babylonians clearly had reasons to make laws about who got to use water and how. The main point, however, is that conflicts over water started long ago, and predictions are they are going to get even worse over the next few years.

One of the chapters in the book is called "Federal Water Agencies." Now, I imagine that in Babylonia or the Roman Empire, when a king or an emperor was making the final decision, no sovereignty had more than one water agency. But in the United States we have no fewer than 12 federal agencies that make decisions about water. Is anyone surprised that it is sometimes difficult to resolve conflicts that arise when we have a dozen authorities that could potentially be involved? Thus we might see a divergence of opinion between the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Environmental Protection Agency might have a different view about water quality than the U.S. Geological Survey (which includes most of the nation's amphibian biologists who work for the government). The upshot is that the federal positions about water use, quality, and regional value can vary greatly, so when state and private concerns are added to the mix, the legal waters are sure to become muddied.

The book has comprehensive accounts about all the other basic aspects of natural waters, such as sections on water pollution, water chemistry, waterborne diseases, and wastewater treatment. And the absolutely essential chapter on water and the environment makes it clear that we need to keep the aesthetics of living in the formula as well as the necessities of having water to drink, navigate over, and run industries. If you want to catch up on the rising water conflicts in certain regions of the country (such as Alabama vs. Florida vs. Georgia, or Northern vs. Southern California) the details are given in a chapter devoted to such wrangles. In typical textbook style, recommended readings on specific topics are at the end of each chapter, along with suggested Web sites and videos.

A sentence in the water allocation law chapter of Cech's book sums up a key perspective about water: "Conflict over scarce water resources continues today and will increase as the world's population grows and environmental concerns deepen." All nations, states, and communities should keep this thought in mind. Such conflicts are sure to affect many of them.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)