Water Wars? Here in the US?

OK, put away your guns. We’re not talking shooting wars, at least not yet, at least not in the U.S. We’re talking politicians shooting off their mouths, political wars, and court battles. But water is serious business.

But it is a different story around the world, where there is a long and sad history of violent conflict over water. At the Pacific Institute we maintain the Water Conflict Chronology, documenting examples going back literally 5,000 years.

As others have pointed out, water can be – and often is – a source of cooperation rather than conflict. But conflicts over water are real. And as populations and economies grow, and as we increasingly reach “peak water” limits to local water resources, I believe that the risks of conflicts will increase, even here in the United States, and not just in the water-scarce arid west.

Recently, tensions over water bubbled up in an unlikely spot: the Georgia-Tennessee border. There has been a bit of a border dispute in this region for a long time. Nearly two hundred years actually. Until recently, no one paid much attention to it, and it hasn’t been an issue with any particular salience or urgency. There was a flurry of attention around the issue during a severe drought in 2008, and then it died down again. Until now.

What is the issue? If the border can be redrawn (or “corrected” as Georgia puts it), it would give them access to the northernmost bank of the Tennessee River, and a new right to water resources that Georgia would now, desperately, like to tap to satisfy growing demands in the Atlanta region.

In mid-February, the Georgia House of Representatives voted 171-2 to adopt a resolution seeking to reopen the controversy and regain access to the Tennessee River. At the moment, Tennessee lawmakers are more amused than alarmed, but they also say they will act to protect their water from “Peach State poachers.” An editorial in the Chattanooga (Tennessee) times Free-Press said:

“We hope Atlanta can find an appropriate solution. But the river in our backyard is not it.”

And recently elected Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam pledged in his campaign that he would:

"protect our precious resources and will fight any attempt to ... siphon off our water."

This isn't the only water dispute involving Georgia. For decades, the state has been in a legal battle with Alabama and Florida over the shared Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system (I can say that fast, out loud, but it took practice). That dispute has been before the U.S. Supreme Court for years.

And this isn't the only state-to-state water dispute in the U.S. to flare up in recent months. [For a hint of where to look for water tensions, take a look at Figure 1: the U.S. Drought Monitor.] The Republican River flows through the states of Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas, but sharing the river has been a recurring political dispute for decades. In the latest chapter, the Special Master overseeing an agreement forged in 1943 recently rejected a request by Kansas to punish Nebraska for using too much water. Kansas asked for $80 million from Nebraska for violations of the Republican River Compact of 1943. The Special Master agreed that Nebraska farmers violated the compact in 2005 and 2006 and took 71,000 acre-feet of water too much, but only proposed awarding a payment of only $5 million. He also denied a Kansas request to shut off water for some Nebraska farmers along the river.

Figure 1. US Drought Monitor report for late February. The west is in severe drought, but notice anything about the southeast, around Georgia and Tennessee? Figure 1. US Drought Monitor report for late February. The west is in severe drought, but notice anything about the southeast, around Georgia and Tennessee?

And don’t get me started on the Colorado River, shared by seven U.S. states and Mexico, or the Great Lakes, shared by eight states and Canada.

The fact that these disputes in the U.S. head to court rather than the gun rack is good news. Similar disputes in India, China, and parts of Africa over access and allocation of water too often end in violence, injuries, and deaths.

Water wars don’t have to be inevitable, but we’re going to have to work harder at defusing tensions around the fair and equitable allocation of our limited water.

Peter Gleick


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Unfortunately, the attitude of the governor of Georgia is typical. Once there was some rain, he said that the drought was over, basically encouraging everyone to go back to their old, wasteful water use ways.

Based on the link, Georgia's claim and proposed solution sound reasonable. It would be interesting to hear Tennessee's side of the story. One of my concerns about that solution is that access to that much water would virtually eliminate any interest in the Atlanta area and northwest Georgia in permanent water conservation measures.

We're fortunate in NZ that our regional political boundaries are largely drawn along drainage divides. In one notable exception, the shared Waitaki River catchment is managed by the more dependent region on the left bank. Our water conflicts are over values, not geopolitics.

For residential use it's looking like the choices are going to be a) recycled sewage or b) on-site graywater recycling.

Re. (a): Aside from the ick factor, there is a very real energy cost involved, in pushing all that sewage back up the entropy gradient to remove all the potential nasties: not just bacteria and viruses, but pharmaceuticals, various overt toxins, etc. (Meanwhile, bottled water conglomerates drool over the prospect of selling more of their stuff to the public, and you can be sure they would love to see sewage recycling because it will be a total boon for marketing.)

In solid waste management, the slogan is "reduce, re-use, recycle." The emphasis is on "reduce" because the point is to make less "waste" in the first place: making less waste is the most sustainable option. On-site graywater recycling is the equivalent of reducing waste: reducing residential water use by 20% in the first place. Zoning & local ordinances to simply do away with lawns would be good for another 30% or so, if I recall correctly (and think of the jobs for landscape contractors, replacing all those lawns).

Scary facts dep't: A few years ago when Australia was going through a desperate drought, they instituted serious water rationing in certain areas. But in other areas, people just kept on watering their bloody lawns like nothing was the matter. They'd see the news every night on TV, about the ferocious water emergencies nearby, but it didn't move them.

So the question is, how do we get it through peoples' thick skulls, that we're facing a global emergency of unprecedented magnitude, and serious measures are required immediately...?

Thank you for your comments, though I have a few thoughts in response. First, there is a very real energy cost of ALL options, not just water treatment and reuse, and we can produce the highest quality drinking water from any source for no more energy than desalination. But you're right about the marketing question... it will have to be done in a smart and informative way.
Second, Australia responded, overall, very well in the water conservation/efficiency department. Perhaps some people kept water lawns, but overall their per-capita residential water dropped enormously. It is far lower than Californian's, so good regulation, public education, and peer pressure all work when water shortages are desperate enough.
I agree it is a real problem (of course), but I'm a bit more optimistic about the solutions! Thanks.