WATER IS ONE OF OUR MOST VALUABLE RESOURCES

by Whit Gibbons


October 28, 2007


You don't 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.

Soon, residents 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.

Atlanta is 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.

Water is 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 consumption.

In Babylonia 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?

For example, 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 muddied.

As water 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.

The world 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.

When water 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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