Thursday, November 1, 2007

Deep South water wars: share and share alike

(Originally published 10/27/07)

In our house, the crescendo of little-girl voices is a sure sign of trouble:

"That’s mine!"
"Mom says you have to share!!!"

And then, invariably:


You know the drill. One has something; the other wants it. They don’t share. They fight. You can almost hear the bell sounding.

The bell sounded last week when Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue asked President Bush to intervene in the latest round of his state’s Water Wars with neighboring Alabama and Florida. Pained by an historic drought, Perdue wants to restrict the flow of water from Lake Lanier and Georgia’s federal reservoirs, thus cutting the amount of water flowing down the Chattahoochee River – by as much as 60 percent, if the drought conditions persist.

Perdue’s proposition raised hackles all around.

Can’t you just hear them?

"It’s our water."
"But it’s OUR WATER!!"
"You have to share! The Army Corps of Engineers says so!"
"President BUUUUUUSH!!!!!!"

I have to admit that on Thursday, when I saw Alabama Gov. Bob Riley’s remarks on the subject and realized that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was taking Riley’s side by asking the president not to grant Perdue’s request, I had a momentary instinct to dispense maternal justice and sit the two apparent bullies in the corner.

But the Water Wars are no laughing matter. The flow of the Chattahoochee River is the life of many communities downstream. Its importance is measured not in cubic feet per second, but in the preservation of entire industries and, indeed, livelihoods, along the river’s winding path to the Gulf.

And while lower flow impacts everyone downstream, perhaps no area is more vulnerable than the commercial fishing communities of Florida’s Panhandle. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, Crist told Bush in a letter Thursday that low flows are already creating "economic peril" and threatening the $205 million commercial fishing industry that has been passed from generation to generation in Apalachicola Bay.

Perdue had a point this week when he said that "Congress did not pass the Endangered Species Act with the intention of providing protection for species of mussel and sturgeon at the expense of critical human needs." Continuing under the current arrangement "will also mean less water for the endangered species in the future," he said.

But CNN quoted an Army Corps official in Mobile who said that even if there were nine months without rain, water supplies would still be adequate.

The agreements governing water flow weren’t reached in a vacuum. Abandoning them to ease drought effects in the Atlanta area in the short term would wreak certain, irreversible havoc downstream in the long run.

Crist agreed.

"Reacting to the concerns of an upstream state to suspend environmental laws unilaterally at the expense of a downstream state’s ecology and economy cannot be justified in any circumstance," he wrote to Bush.

In other words, can’t we all just get along?

The reality is that this region’s water woes won’t be solved through any of the six separate lawsuits pending on this issue. The answer will have to involve cooperation, coordination, and, most of all, conservation. We’re all going to have to learn to share.
• • •

Everyone’s adjusting to strict new watering guidelines in many North Georgia cities. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this week that the City of Alpharetta was issued two citations for illegally watering some flower beds in front of City Hall - on the same day that city officials passed "uber-tough" watering restrictions.

The citations include fines totaling $750. But, "We’re not in the business of paying ourselves," Assistant City Administrator Robert Rokovitz said.

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