Livelihoods at stake in major watershed battle

  • Near Helen, Ga., the Chattahoochee River begins as a small trickle. It gradually builds and provides water for Atlanta around 100 miles downstream.
  • At the epicenter of the tri-state water war is Lake Lanier, a reservoir above Atlanta that supplies the expanding city’s water needs. During drought, Lake Lanier becomes the lynchpin in the entire Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River system. Some legislators in Georgia want to build more dams and retain more water in the upper watershed, but dams cost upwards of $1 billion to construct and they lose massive amounts of water from evaporation.
  • David and Michael Hanson pause to make sure the flood gates weren’t opening, then floated into the man-made canyon below the out-flow of Lake Lanier’s Buford Dam. Constructed in 1956, Buford Dam was built for flood control and hydropower, yet it has become the water source for the city of Atlanta, making it one of the smallest watersheds for a major city in America.
  • The Chattahoochee River below Atlanta creeps slowly as the sun sets.
  • Michael Hanson floats past Plant McDonough, a Georgia power plant in the suburbs south of Atlanta. The plant recently shifted from coal to natural gas. While energy plants such as these require millions of gallons of river water per day, they return much of that water to the river. And because conservation groups sued energy and wastewater facilities in the 1990s, the companies were forced and shamed into cleaning up their outflow.
  • Dueling rope swings hang quietly beside the Chattahoochee River south of Atlanta, Ga.
  • Ricky Blackburn and his family hunt and fish near their home beside the lower Chattahoochee River. They guess that around 70% of their protein comes as catfish, deer or hog harvested from their backyards.
  • Tony Knighton owns a cattle ranch on the Georgia side of the Chattahoochee River near Columbia, Ga.
  • A cypress tree clings to a shallow island inundated by abnormally high flows on the lower Flint River. The lower Flint River is a unique hydrologic environment with layers of underground rivers — aquifers — carrying the majority of the region’s water from southern Georgia into subterranean Florida. Agriculture makes up over 30% of the economy in the lower Flint basin, and the farmers rely on the aquifer to supply their irrigation pumps. Big agriculture accounts for the largest draw from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River system.
  • Rusty, Ricky and Paula Blackburn fry a catfish at a campground near Sneads, Fl.
  • David and Michael Hanson camp below a large oak tree near Ocheesee Landing on the banks of the Apalachicola River in Florida.
  • The deeper David and Michael Hanson moved down the watershed, the more people they saw interacting with the rivers, mostly as hunters and fishermen.
  • Native pine forests exhibit healthy spacing along the banks of the Chattahoochee River. For much of the Chattahoochee’s 434-mile path, a natural, wild buffer insulates the river from the developed and cultivated world around it.
  • “There’s an almost overwhelming sense of curiosity experienced from people we met. Something about a dirty old canoe and a month-long river float stirs the adventure spirit. Meals, cold beer, a roof to sleep under and stories were the currency we traded in,” filmmaker David Hanson says about his time on the river.
  • John Wallace always loved living on the water. He and his wife Patricia Wallace lived on their houseboat for 10 years, fished and hunted for meals, and drove an old van into town for the rest of their staples. Now the Wallaces live on land again, river life having become too physically demanding.
  • Andrew Kornylak preps the camera during the filming of “Who Owns Water” at a boat ramp near Sneads, Fl.
  • Kendall Shoelles, a lifetime oystertonger, rakes and culls a fresh harvest in Apalachicola Bay, Fl. This bay, one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the country, is deeply threatened by the lack of freshwater coming from Georgia and the many dams that block the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers. Florida has sued Georgia and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.
  • St. Vincent Wildlife Refuge is a narrow barrier island protecting Apalachicola Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. A pristine wildlife area open only for day use, St. Vincent is home to alligators, snakes, gopher tortoises, dozens of bird species, and the rare Sambar deer, a native of Southeast Asia.
  • In Apalachicola, the oyster industry has deep roots in small businesses committed to sustainable fishery practices. Osytertongers motor small wooden skiffs into the bay and rake oysters off leased beds with hand-made oyster tongs. The three-generation-old oyster business has nearly shut down. Without freshwater from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Rivers combining with the saltwater passing through narrow “cuts” between barrier islands, the oysters succumb to salt-water predators. 
  • Long, narrow barrier islands buffer Apalachicola Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. Narrow “cuts” between the islands, some natural, some dredged for boat traffic, allow saltwater into the bay. With the freshwater coming into the bay from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) rivers, the brackish mix creates the perfect balance for oyster growth. Apalachicola Bay has produced 90% of Florida’s oyster harvest and 10% of the nation’s. But a lack of freshwater from the ACF Rivers nearly killed the oyster industry in the bay in 2012.

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There is a water war taking place in the tri-state region of Florida, Georgia and Alabama. In Florida’s Apalachicola Bay, oystermen and women want enough freshwater to keep saltwater predators from eating the oysters. Upriver in the Lower Flint River basin, farmers need to know they can water their peanut fields through south Georgia’s dry seasons. A canoe and raft outfitter up amid the longleaf pine bluffs of the lower Piedmont hopes for water to cover the rocky shoals so he can continue his decades-old canoe and raft business.

David and Michael Hanson/Modoc Stories

In March of 2013, my brother Michael and I launched a canoe onto the headwaters of north Georgia’s Chattahoochee River. For a month we paddled south to the Gulf of Mexico, filming the expedition and the people we met along the way. These are our childhood rivers, threatened by overuse. We wanted to talk to the people living beside them. A year later, in spring of 2014, we completed a documentary film that gives a ground-level voice to a water war that will likely set precedent for impending boundary water disputes across the country.

In early November, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the case of Florida vs. Georgia. The problem is simple: The Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, Flint (ACF) River system does not have enough water to meet future needs. And since the river, like most, flows across state lines, there’s no clear solution.

Unlike the privatized water rights of the American West, water laws east of the Mississippi maintain that each person has the right to a “reasonable use” of the water that passes on, beside, or beneath his or her property. That right comes with the responsibility that the water user returns enough water into the river system to supply “reasonable use” amounts for downstream users.

So in Georgia, we each own 1/10 millionth of the state’s water. That’s great when there’s plenty of water to go around. But there’s no longer an abundance. Climate change has brought longer, deeper droughts. Atlanta continues to be one of the nation’s fastest growing cities. Big-agriculture farmers in the Lower Flint and Lower Chattahoochee River basins need massive amounts of water to irrigate their peanut, soybean, cotton and corn crops. At the bottom of the drainage, one of the country’s most productive marine estuaries, Apalachicola Bay, requires healthy river flows to maintain its balance of fresh-to-salt water. Hundreds of existing reservoirs in the system lose millions of gallons through evaporation.

The Supreme Court case could be a blessing or a curse. It brings much needed motivation, timeliness and authority to the water wars. But it clogs the progress of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Stakeholders (ACFS), a grassroots group of community leaders, industry, conservation groups, and business owners that has been collaborating across state, political and ideological lines to engender the cooperation and research necessary to reach a sustainable solution.

If the Supreme Court’s master planner can take into account the years of work and scientific research generated by the ACFS, and if the lawyers for the states can see the watershed as a whole, rather than an all-or-nothing, my-state-versus-your-state battle, then a solution could be within reach. Otherwise, folks like the ones we met while floating down the river will continue to wonder who really controls the water flowing toward them.

David Hanson is a freelance writer, photographer, and producer based in Seattle, Washington. His brother, Michael Hanson is also a Seattle-based photographer and filmmaker. The documentary feature film “Who Owns Water”, directed by David Hanson, Michael Hanson, and Andrew Kornylak, was an official selection at Mountainfilm Telluride 2014 in Telluride, Colo., and was also selected for Mountainfilm’s 2014 year-round World Tour. Check out the dates and places that Mountainfilm is on tour to see the full feature film “Who Owns Water” or watch it here.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography 

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