Water conflicts have been going on since the beginning of human life. Water is an essential component of health, a key component of industry, and a significant symbol of power and sovereignty. Debates over water are urgent, emotional, and sometimes violent. Issues of water have been a critical part of our nation’s history, most notably in the West, but more recently in the Southeast as well. Water scarcity, caused by mismanagement and global warming, is intensifying these issues nationwide. And as the climate warms, debates over water resources are heating up too.
One of the most historic and contentious water conflicts in the United States is centered around the Colorado River, which runs through Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California. One in eight Americans ─ about 40 million people ─ rely on the Colorado Basin for their drinking water and livelihoods. And the region is growing, with an expected population increase of 10 million people by 2060. This growth is marked by burgeoning urban centers, including Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, in contrast with increasingly sparse rural areas. Collaboration between urban and agricultural users is almost nonexistent.
Historic water law in the West lends itself to conflict. The “use it or lose it” policy, developed in the early days of western settlement, encourages exploitation of water resources. As the name implies, water rights essentially are relinquished if states do not put their allocated annual supplies to good use. Thus, standard practice is for upstream states to pull as much water as possible, leaving states in southern regions of the basin at a deficit. The dominant governing strategy for the Colorado River thus far has been the “Law of the River,” a policy based on the accumulation of numerous court decisions, contracts, laws, and regulations created over the last 100 years. Though this approach has been relatively effective in the past, increasing tensions may prove it to be an unworkable model for the future.
Though water conflicts are a hallmark of the West, they have been relatively rare in the East. Eastern states typically have managed water under the assumption that freshwater will remain plentiful. Yet this precedent is changing rapidly, as evidenced by the fact that two out of the three water dispute cases before the U.S. Supreme Court are based in eastern states, including Florida v. Georgia and Mississippi v. Tennessee.
The most significant eastern water dispute is centered around the tri-state negotiations between Alabama, Florida, and Georgia over two river basins, the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa Basin and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin. Atlanta, Georgia, one of the largest and most rapidly growing cities in the region, is not located in a water-rich area of the state, yet demands for municipal water are growing. Meanwhile, in the southeast corner of the state, Georgian farmers are expanding their production, as the percentage of irrigated land cover has increased 15-fold in the last 20 years, especially along the Flint River. For farmers, irrigation is a form of risk management. It is a way to ensure consistent outputs and substantial yields. With these two massive waters demands, leadership in Georgia has been under increased pressure to safeguard water claims. However, downstream states Alabama and Florida have their own concerns. Alabama, which relies on the river system for power generation, municipal supplies, and fisheries, is at a disadvantage, as it is the only one of these states lacking a comprehensive water management plan. In Florida, the basin is the major support system of shellfish fisheries. Low river flows combined with saltwater intrusion have created a massive threat to ecosystem health in Apalachicola Bay. 2012 is often cited as the year that oyster populations in the area collapsed. Though all stakeholders have valid concerns, political leaders on all sides remain quite combative.
The examination of water in the United States is simultaneously an examination of applied American ideologies. In the West, longstanding cultural values like rugged individualism and libertarian politics have shaped water management to be frequently combative rather than cooperative. For many states across the country, water rights are inextricably linked to states’ rights, as a symbol of sovereignty and self-reliance.
Transboundary water pursuits in a nation such as the United States are inevitable, as river systems flow without regard for borders, and despite our nation’s long tradition of federalism, successful water management calls for interstate collaboration. Innovative water solutions will involve balancing the interests of a variety of stakeholders, viewing basins systematically rather than on a state-by-state basis, and envisioning an American culture that embraces community-focused solutions that prioritize water as a shared resource rather than a symbol of control and power. Water conflicts are bound to become more and more common in the coming decades, but this does not mean that Americans must go thirsty. Proactive, comprehensive, multi-state agreements are the key to ensuring adequate water access for every American.