IS ONE OF OUR MOST VALUABLE RESOURCES
by Whit Gibbons
October 28, 2007
have to be a news junkie these days to be aware that water is a vital
resource and that we do not have a limitless supply of it. Certainly everyone
in Atlanta is aware of these facts. A lengthy drought has seen to that.
of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida will have firsthand knowledge of just
how precious water is. Those three states are gearing up for a major struggle
to determine who uses the water from the Chattahoochee River. A major
source of Atlanta's water, Lake Lanier, is several feet below normal.
Reducing the Chattahoochee's flow downstream toward Alabama and Florida
would result in water losses that would not be acceptable to either of
those states. Georgia's governor, Sonny Perdue, has appealed to the president
for federal assistance. The situation has all the earmarks of a prolonged
and bitter battle.
beginning to look farther afield for water, because even if the drought
breaks and it rains for days on end, Lake Lanier will not fill fast enough
to quench the city's thirst. Could the Savannah River be targeted as a
long-distance water resource for Atlanta? One bank of the river belongs
to Georgia; the other, to South Carolina. Who owns the water in between?
Every river that touches two different states could become a battle zone
of water rights.
a critical resource for all living things. And sharing, or not sharing,
water resources has been a point of contention for thousands of years.
Consider Mesopotamia, which lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers
and included the region now known as Iraq. The average yearly rainfall
was about eight inches. As you might imagine, long-term droughts were
not uncommon. The Babylonians clearly had good reason to make laws about
who got to use water and how. As our water supplies in the United States
dwindle, we too will need to regulate the who and how and when of water
or the Roman Empire or any other ancient realm, when sovereigns were making
decisions about water use, they did not have to take into account the
rules and regulations of myriad government agencies. In the United States
we have a dozen federal agencies that are authorized to make decisions
about water. Is it any wonder that conflicts and confusion arise?
the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might
easily have a difference of opinion about water use or regional value.
The Environmental Protection Agency might not view water quality from
the same perspective as the U.S. Geological Survey (which includes most
of the nation's amphibian biologists who work for the federal government).
In short, federal agencies can, and do, have different ideas about how
and when to regulate water use-and who gets to decide. When state and
private concerns are added to the mix, the legal waters are sure to become
becomes scarcer, conflicts will arise between communities, states, and
even nations. Ensuring that safe water is available for such basic human
needs as drinking, cooking, and washing will lead to serious competitive
situations. Debates will ensue about how water should be partitioned between
those basic needs and other applications, such as recreational and leisure
activities (washing cars; watering lawns and golf courses; keeping lakes
deep enough for water skiing); power plant cooling waters and other industrial
purposes; and wildlife and habitat conservation uses necessary for a healthy
environment. The decisions will not be easy ones for any governing body
to make, and agreement will be hard to achieve.
has a lot of water. But it does not have an infinite amount. And the water
available per person decreases as human populations increase around the
world. Long-term droughts that reduce water supplies are expected to increase
in frequency. Hence, water disputes can be expected to increase in frequency
and intensity in many regions. And disputes, if unresolved, become wars.
is abundant, we take it for granted and hardly give it a second thought.
It's now time to give some serious thought to water and how to manage
this precious and finite resource.
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