Hot Water

States need water like never before, which creates competition but also cooperation.

By Garry Boulard
March 2008

As the former mayor of Pooler, Ga., Earl C. “Buddy” Carter has seen first-hand one of the unexpected results of buoyant population growth.

“We were just like every other community in Georgia,” says Carter, who is now a member of the state’s House of Representatives. “We very much wanted to promote growth. In 1996 the population of Pooler stood at about 4,500 and today it is more than 12,000. And that, to us, was good news.”

But with a dramatic increase in new residents that has been replicated throughout the state, the city of Pooler has also had to confront a potential water crisis.

“We tried to make certain that we had the resources, in particular water and sewer, to provide for the new people coming in,” says Carter. “But if you have a population boom going on everywhere else in the state that is drawing off of the same supply source, you have to eventually wonder how much you can handle. At what point do you worry about exceeding the limits of your supply?”

According to the 2007 U.S. Census estimates, Georgia, with 9.5 million people, has become, population-wise, the ninth-largest state in the country, with more people than New Jersey and North Carolina and just 500,000 fewer than Michigan. Four decades ago it was the nation’s 15th largest state.

Growth in Georgia has been in all parts of the state, but mostly in the Atlanta area, which, with 5.1 million people, makes up more than half of Georgia’s population.

“We say that there are two Georgias,” remarks Carter. “There’s Atlanta and there’s everywhere else.”

A Multi-State Issue
For its drinking water, Atlanta and much of the northern swath of Georgia rely on man-made Lake Lanier. At the head of the Chattahoochee River, it also supplies water for parts of Florida and Alabama. That worked fine for awhile, says Michael Hayes, until the area suffered “one of the most severe droughts in recent history.” That, added to the pressures of population growth, has caused Lake Lanier to sink to record low levels. That means that “a source of water that everyone has taken for granted has been found to be not as unlimited as previously imagined,” he says.

The result, continues Hayes, who is the executive director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, is not only bad news for Georgia, but Alabama—whose eastern border runs alongside the Chattahoochee—and Florida, which accesses the Chattahoochee’s waters after it spills into the smaller Apalachicola.

“Rivers cross state borders,” says Hayes. “A water level problem in one state will more than likely affect a host of other states nearby.”

The shrinking of Georgia’s Lake Lanier—down in 2007 by more than 20 feet from its normal pool of 1,071 feet—has also involved the federal government. In October, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue threatened to go to court to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from releasing water from the lake into the Apalachicola.

By the guidelines of an agreement hammered out more than two decades ago with Georgia and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Corps releases 3.2 billion gallons a day from the dam between Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee. It’s part of a larger plan to protect endangered sturgeon and mussel, while also supplying the hydroelectric power needs of Florida.

Noting the state’s drought conditions, Perdue threatened a lawsuit, charging that Washington, D.C., was “making an ill-advised choice in favor of mussel and sturgeon over Georgia’s citizens.” In response, the Corps, while initially denying that Lake Lanier’s lower levels represented an emergency, agreed to reduce the releases from the lake by 16 percent.

The Federal Impact
Georgia’s efforts to have more say in how the waters from Lake Lanier should be used represent more than just one battle between a state and the federal government, says George William Sherk, a water attorney in Denver. “What it really symbolizes is the incredibly difficult situation the states are in regarding water issues in general.”

“States cannot plan their water futures because they don’t know the requirements of all of the federal laws,” says Sherk. “And even if they do, those requirements are conflicting and it is extremely difficult—if not impossible—to prioritize them.”

Colorado Representative Kathleen Curry, chair of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, agrees. “Federal policy can also affect water supply development as well as yields,” she says.

“Integrating with the federal government means that you have a level of uncertainty, and that very much affects water resources planning,” says Curry. “But you can’t sit back and do nothing. You have to move forward and hope that you can ultimately comply with, or at least understand, where the feds are headed. This is just a part of doing water-supply management at the state level.”

One of the ways the states have sought to move forward is through formalized agreements with other states. In December, the governors Alabama, Florida and Georgia held a “drought summit” in the hope of forging a consensus on the long-term needs of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) river basins.

Some regard the governors’ commitment to assign their staffs to work together on upcoming water issues as the most promising thing to come out of the summit. The three chief executives, along with Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne, did agree on the need for a new drought protocol, while also promising not to reduce the minimum amount of water that will flow into the Apalachicola in the immediate future. 

Just the fact that the governors of the three states have signaled a willingness to address water issues jointly has inspired lawmakers, says Carter. It puts an end to a legal dispute dating back to 1990 when Alabama sued the Corps in response to an attempt by Georgia to divert more water from the ACF basin.

“A lot of us here would rather see us talking to each other instead of meeting in court,” Carter says. “The only solution is cooperation.”

States Work Together
Cooperation relating to water issues is most prominently on display among the eight states surrounding the Great Lakes. They have been working for six years to form a regional compact to develop a framework for adopting conservation plans and regulating water use.

The most important selling point behind the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact is its prohibition against diverting water from the Great Lakes and its rivers.

“When you have a water resource that is 20 percent of the fresh water in the world, just one state trying to do the right thing regarding diversions and conservation isn’t enough,” says Indiana Senator Beverly Gard, a proponent of the compact.

“Clearly, we have all learned from experience that either all of the Great Lakes states have to follow the same rules and stick together, or we are not going to be able to protect this tremendous water resource,” says Gard.

While the governors of the eight states of the Great Lakes have signed off on the compact, only the Illinois and Minnesota legislatures have ratified it.

“So far we have not heard any opposition to it here,” says Gard. “And that’s after two long committee meetings where everyone from industry and environmental groups came together to talk about it.”

Supporters of the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact note that it still needs to be ratified by the legislatures of six more states and that the going may not be entirely smooth. In Wisconsin, Senator Mary Lazich says she has concerns that the effect of the compact may be additional bureaucracy. “I think it has the potential to be make-work for the government and private sector attorneys who will be involved in defining all of this down the road,” says Lazich.

But even with such reservations, Lazich acknowledges that momentum is in the compact’s favor, and for a compelling reason. “All of us are reading about the water issues across the country and it makes us even more determined to preserve our Great Lakes. We want to see the language of the compact tweaked a little, but ultimately the only thing that matters is making sure that nothing detrimental happens to the lakes.”

One of the most enduring multi-state agreements in the nation is the Colorado River Compact. Beginning in 1922, it requires Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming to deliver up to 7.5 million acre-feet per year of water to Nevada, Arizona and California. (One acre-foot provides enough water for two households per year.) Last year those seven states updated the compact by agreeing to a new 20-year plan that allows Nevada, Arizona and California, as part of a drought plan, to store water in Lake Mead for possible later use. It also commits all seven states in the basin to share water shortages and provides incentives for conservation.

Preparing For Drought
Such drought preparation, says Hayes, can give states a leg up on their water woes even when weather patterns and population growth appear to be conspiring against adequate water supplies. “When it comes to developing drought plans, states have been the leaders for the last 20 to 30 years,” says Hayes. “Coming out of the droughts of the late 1970s, the states looked to the federal government for some direction, but did not find it. So they started to take on that process themselves.”

Hayes says truly effective drought plans must incorporate the requirements of multi-state compacts and endangered species issues. “Increasingly,” he says, “an effective drought plan includes not only the needs of your own state, but an awareness of what is going on in the states around you.”

Yet even when a water issue does not directly involve the federal government or the participation of another state, lawmakers still confront complexities. In Oregon, farmers along the northern edge of the state want to get more water from the Columbia River in an effort to increase crop production.

“The Columbia River, which runs between our state and Washington, is a tremendous resource,” says Oregon Senator David Nelson. “A lot of people compare it to the Colorado River as the two great rivers of the west. And they are. But the Colorado has only about 10 million acre-feet of volume and is pretty much all appropriated, while the Columbia River has about 20 times that amount and is only 5 percent or 6 percent appropriated.”

Touting a program known as the “Oasis Project,” some Oregon farm groups have asked to draw up to 500,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Columbia. Their efforts were unsuccessful in the legislature last year after environmentalists argued that it could threaten migrating native salmon and steelhead.

Since then, says Nelson, “we’ve been working with all of the interested parties to come up with a compromise.” That compromise, which is expected to be introduced in bill form this session, will include using water from the Columbia only in the non-migrating winter months. That will allow underground aquifers to fill up again for the summer months.

“I think this is something that we as a state can do for ourselves,” says Nelson. “If we don’t, no one else will.”

That sort of resolve, says Tom Curtis, is indicative of a mindset being played out  across the county. “The states have decided that they have to take these matters on, and as a result, are working diligently to assess their water resources issues.”

Curtis, who is the deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association in Washington, D.C., says “states are looking ahead 50 years and more, and trying to address the challenging problem of where they are going to get the water they need to serve their growing populations.”

“I think you have to admire them,” says Curtis, “for stepping up to the plate.”

“Every year, we have 20 to 30 bills that are water-related,” says Colorado’s Curry. She says they address such issues as recreational water use, water for wildlife, water for fisheries and the demand for transferring water for domestic purposes to a location far from the supply.

“Almost all of these water issues are huge and some of the most controversial bills we face every year,” says Curry. “But we have to face them, with or without the help of the federal government, because our survival as a state depends on it.”

Garry Boulard, a frequent contributor to State Legislatures, is a freelance writer in Albuquerque, N.M.