Still More Water War

by Curt Burnett on August 7, 2009

While the judge’s ruling is more far-reaching than we anticipated, it is not entirely unexpected. ….Now that the legal question of Lake Lanier’s usage has been clarified, it is UCR’s hope that all stakeholders will get out of court and get to the solutions of how to manage this finite resource to the benefit of all who depend upon it, upstream and downstream.

from the website of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper

I’m back in Seattle now, but I can’t quite let go of the tri-state water war I left behind in Atlanta. It’s an intriguing case for many reasons. One of them is that at one time it appeared to be a model for cooperative settling of interstate water disputes. Legal battle between Georgia and Florida/Alabama was joined in about 1990, and then in 1997 there was what appeared to be a giant step toward resolution. The parties signed two agreements, one for each of the affected river basins, the Apalachicola/Chattahoochee/Flint (ACF) and the Alabama/Coosa/Talapoosa (ACT). These agreements were then ratified by Congress.

While the compacts didn’t settle the details of tri-state water use, they did create a detailed framework for creating a sharing system, with deadlines to keep things moving. Most unfortunately, the deadlines passed in 2003/2004 without said sharing system in place, throwing the case back into the courts and leading to the Federal Court ruling by judge Paul Magnuson this July 17. And as the judge described it, for Atlanta the ruling if left unchanged will be “draconian”. He allowed three years before it takes effect so that Congress can change the Corps of Engineers mandate if it so chooses.

Which brings up another interesting aspect of the whole situation. In many respects this is a water war between greater metropolitan Atlanta and Alabama/Florida. Without the massive withdrawals that Atlanta metro came over time to make from Lake Lanier, this quarrel likely woudn’t have come about.

Last evening I was thumbing through the Biennial Water Report 2008-2009 (edited by the ubiquitous Peter Gleick), and happened onto a piece on urban water use in three example cities, Atlanta, Seattle, and Las Vegas. Since I live in Seattle and had just returned from Atlanta (and was glad not to be in Las Vegas in August) I had to read it and study the statistics. One great thing about the usage stats is that they were broken down into indoor and outdoor use, allowing the separation of true domestic use and home landscape irrigation.

Not surprisingly, Las Vegas led the way in daily per capita use, at around 170 gallons, with about 70 going to irrigation, 100 to indoor use. Seattle had the lowest overall consumption at around 75 gallons, with very little going for irrigation. Atlanta had the highest indoor consumption, at around 110 gallons per person, plus around (surprisingly little) 15 for irrigation.

During the recent drought, Atlanta was apparently able to get average daily per capita use under 100 gallons, including irrigation. However, when the drought ended this spring watering restrictions were lifted and there are already signs that use is bouncing back.

As major cities go, Atlanta is rather constrained in water sources. Groundwater access is difficult due to the nature of the underlying rock formations, and the city itself is on relatively high ground. The Chattahoochee and Coosa rivers have been its main water source as it grew by leaps and bounds to around four million (metro area).

So one way that many observers portray the situation is that an overly-indulgent Army Corps of Engineers (custodian of the the dam that created Lake Lanier from the Chattahoochee) enabled Atlanta’s uncontrolled and somewhat unplanned sprawl by allowing ever-increasing withdrawals from the river system with little regard for the downstream users. Alabama and Florida had to go to court to stop the growth of the withdrawals.

It’s odd that a state which receives 50″ of rain a year would be involved in a pitched water battle, but that’s the reality. One can only wonder what the eventual tri-state water war in the desert Southwest (Arizona/Nevada/California) is going to look like. The three southeastern states could set a pattern for cooperative conservation and rational sharing, but given the history so far the prognosis isn’t good.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: