Livelihoods at stake in major watershed battle
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.
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.