Football border battle eclipsed in importance by the war over water

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On Saturday, the South's oldest college football rivalry -- between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Auburn Tigers -- will be fought "between the hedges" at the University of Georgia's storied Sanford Stadium. Yet, reading the headlines one would have thought the game was already under way. In response to the extreme drought conditions, the South's newest rivalry between Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley has resulted in a heated exchange across the Chattahoochee River these past few weeks.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue speaks to reporters at the Interior Department in Washington, in this Nov. 1 photo, to discuss the drought problem in the South. The governor will host a prayer service Nov. 13, 2007 to ask for relief from the Southeast drought.  AP / File
AP / File
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue speaks to reporters at the Interior Department in Washington, in this Nov. 1 photo, to discuss the drought problem in the South. The governor will host a prayer service Nov. 13, 2007 to ask for relief from the Southeast drought.

In an exchange of letters last month, Perdue expressed "shock" that Alabama's U.S. senators, at Riley's behest, had added language to a federal spending bill to prevent the updating of water control plans by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Riley responded in kind a few days later, first by pointing out that he did not ask Alabama's senators to include such language. But then added, "In your letter you reference the decisions that the Corps must make in operating its reservoirs. I am relieved to see Georgia finally concede that the reservoirs and the water in them do not belong to Georgia. This is real progress."

IN A REGION where abundant, cheap drinking water has been taken for granted, the current drought gripping the Southeast is a painful reminder of the shortages that we will continue to face if we do not come to a regional decision to conserve water resources.

Until recently, most Georgians and Alabamians showed little interest in state policies to protect our water. As late as 1998, Georgia's Department of Natural Resources noted that the state possesses some of the largest and most pure aquifers in the world; relatively speaking, Georgia is not a large water-using state. While Georgia ranks 10th in population, it ranks only 29th in total water use. However, in the past half-decade much of this has changed, exacerbated by a long-term drought, continued uncontrolled growth and fragmented water use policies.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the calendar year August 2006-2007 was the driest on record for parts of the Southeast and much of the continental United States. The problem has become so acute that salt water from the Upper Floridian Aquifer is now encroaching on the freshwater wells, threatening the water supplies of the region. Throughout Georgia, water restrictions are in effect, with state agencies and utilities ordered to curb water use by 10 percent.

From the nation's beginning, the allocation and development of water resources has been a matter predominately within the authority of states, subject to the power of the federal government to regulate navigation and commerce on navigable waters under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. The direction of water flow provides a common and natural boundary for establishing jurisdictional lines for many states. The direction that water flows also is a point of contention regarding its use. Water is not an uncommon source of disputes between states, and there are various means to resolve these disputes.

In 1990, the state of Alabama filed a federal suit enjoining the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from diverting large amounts of water flowing into Alabama to central Georgia for the benefit of the Atlanta metropolitan area. In an effort to mediate the dispute, Georgia and Alabama agreed to enter into a comprehensive study of water use in the region in 1992.

The governors of each state signed an agreement, and Alabama agreed to move its lawsuit to inactive status while the Corps agreed not to reallocate water resources. By 1997, the states adopted two Interstate Water Compacts that were ratified by Congress and signed by the president.

AT THE HEART of the matter is the increased demand for water coming from metropolitan Atlanta, which is compounded as a result of increased agricultural and industrial uses coupled with extremely dry conditions. Atlanta's heavy demand for water has the potential to limit not only urban development in the Atlanta metro area, but also hydroelectric capacity, and recreational tourism well beyond the city's boundary to include the CSRA.

Negotiations between Georgia and Alabama have been pursued in earnest since 1997, but there appears no resolution in sight. Joseph Dellapenna of the Villanova University School of Law, and a chief consultant to Georgia's Joint Comprehensive Water Plan Study Committee, sums up the current state of affairs, noting, "Atlantans are determined that no one else is going to shut down their growth, and the people outside Atlanta are equally determined not to let Atlanta steal their future."

It is often said that future wars will be fought over water, not oil. In the early 1930s, Arizona Gov. Ben Moeur sent the Arizona National Guard out to point machine guns across the Colorado River to temporarily halt construction work on a new dam and pipeline to carry water to Los Angeles. The militia borrowed two steamboats and set off to invade California, but the Arizona navy wound up entangled in cables before it reached the river's western bank. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the governor to bring the troops home, but the political and legal battles continue today. While we do not contend that armed conflict between Georgia and Alabama will follow, we are witnessing a critical challenge to interstate relations and competing economic development as a result of limited water resources.

Other than normal precipitation patterns, what is needed is a comprehensive and regional approach to water resource planning between the states of Georgia and Alabama. Specifically, the two states should establish a two-state authority, whose boundaries are determined by natural watershed instead of legal jurisdictions, to manage water resource issues. Watershed management requires a regional approach to dealing with water quantity and water quality, since watershed boundaries ignore political jurisdictions.

In short, given the regional nature of the current drought, devolving water use authority at the state government level may be a dead-end in water resource planning, requiring instead federal government authority. A more centralized planning and management authority based upon natural watershed is consistent with the scope of the Corps of Engineers and their responsibilities in navigable waters and reservoir development.

OF COURSE this raises an additional question about local sovereignty. Depending on the shape of the agreement, local sovereignty either will be eroded or left much as it is. A contentious issue for decades in the American West, water and the lack thereof is an emerging challenge to development, economic growth and quality of life in the Southeast. Consequently, cities and counties across the two-state area increasingly will battle one another for the right to draw larger portions of water supplies they share. Therefore, structure with a common and collective purpose is needed.

Barring any attempt to reach a comprehensive agreement, the winner of this weekend's Auburn-Georgia game could decide who takes the water. But, given Georgia's home record against Auburn, this is a gamble we Georgians should not take.

(The writers, respectively, are an associate professor of political science at Augusta State University; and an assistant professor of public policy at Kennesaw State University. They met while pursuing their doctoral degrees at Auburn University.)


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