A NextGen Blog by Michelle O’Brien, University of North Carolina, Wilmington.
This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts student essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.
Michelle O’Brien is a student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, majoring in Environmental Science with a concentration in Conservation Biology. Read her earlier posts here.
Conflict over natural resources has occurred throughout human history. With the rise of modern society, the purity and once sacredness of our water resources has diminished. In many regions across the US, water is perceived to flow endlessly from one’s tap. Collective indifference and ignorance toward water consumption has caused an entire nation to consume with little consideration for long-term availability. To many Americans, the idea of war on water is a foreign concept, solely existing in developing countries. However, as cities across the US continue to expand, so will US water scarcity.
With Water Shortages Comes Water Conflicts
Water shortages arise when limited water resources are not evenly distributed across all shared regions.[mfn]USDA Forest Service[/mfn] According to the United States Forest Service, factors contributing to water shortages in the eastern U.S. include growing population, climate change, groundwater shortages and an increase in air temperature.[mfn]USDA Forest Service[mfn] Populous cities with high water use often increase water stress in neighboring regions or states.
Alabama, Florida and Georgia’s ongoing water conflict, known as the Tri-State Water Wars, began in 1990 when Alabama first sued the Army Corps of Engineers over the extent of water withdrawal from the city of Atlanta, Georgia.[mfn]ARC[/mfn] The dispute escalated when the state of Georgia started to increase the amount of water being withdrawn from Lake Lanier to sustain their growing population and neighboring states grew concerned their water supplies would be directly affected.
Florida claimed the increased withdrawals would directly impact the sustainability of the Apalachicola Bay oyster industry, which officially collapsed in 2012.[mfn]Farrington, B.[/mfn] Almost a decade later, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided to close the Bay until 2025 in hopes of restoring the population for future use.[mfn]ArcGIS Story Map[/mfn] Although court rulings have not officially confirmed the cause of the collapse as a direct result of Georgia’s increased water withdrawals, countless allegations have been made.
The three states share the same water resources, accessed by the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) River Basins.[mfn]ARC[/mfn] In 2016, the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin was deemed the most endangered river in the United States due to outdated and poor water management.[mfn]American Rivers[/mfn] As a result, communities, farmers and wildlife who have relied on the river for decades continue to suffer.[mfn]American Rivers[/mfn] The basin provides 70% of Atlanta’s drinking water and water access to over 4 million people. The ACF Rivers provide economic incentives to local communities through a range of recreational activities, including the nation’s first National Water Trail along the Chattahoochee River – generating over $290 million and attracting millions of visitors each year.[mfn]American Rivers[/mfn]
Although numerous lawsuits have been filed over the years, the Tri-States have failed to come to an agreement where all parties are satisfied. Georgia has historically taken many of the winnings throughout the decades and has secured more gains this year than Florida and Alabama combined. In 2021, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers increased Georgia’s access to water storage from Lake Lanier and the Supreme Court finalized the case between Florida and Georgia, where Florida lost.[mfn]Chattahooche Riverkeeper[/mfn]
As these Metropolitan areas continue to expand, so will stress and conflict over access to large amounts of shared water supplies.[mfn]US Science in the news[/mfn] The ongoing dispute between these three states serves as just one example of US transboundary water conflicts. However, the need for sustainable water management solutions remains critical on a global scale.
“If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water – unless we change our approach to managing this precious and vital resource”
– 1995 World Bank Vice president Dr. Ismail Serageldin
Climate Change and Water Issues for the Eastern US. USDA Forest Service. (n.d.). Retrieved October 17, 2021, from https://forestthreats.org/products/sgcp/sgcp_chiefsbriefing_feb2010version.pdf.
For more information – American rivers. American Rivers. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2021, by MO. https://www.americanrivers.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/MER2016_FullReport.pdf.
Future widespread water shortage likely in U.S. Science in the News. Retrieved October 23, 2021, by MO. https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2019/widespread-water-shortage-likely-in-u-s-caused-by-population-growth-and-climate-change/.
The “Water Wars” and opportunities for change. Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. (2021, October 5). Retrieved October 25, 2021, by MO. from https://chattahoochee.org/2018/06/tri-state-water-conflict/.
Tri-state water wars overview. ARC. (2021, October 5). Retrieved October 17, 2021, by MO. https://atlantaregional.org/natural-resources/water/tri-state-water-wars-overview/.