Civil Water Wars

Civil Water Wars

Alexis ChapmanThursday,21 April 2016

On April 11th the non-profit conservation group American Rivers issued its annual list of America’s most endangered rivers and the Apalachicola was number 1. The river begins in Georgia as the Flint and the Chattahoochee (the names for rivers in the South are super fun), which flows along the Alabama-Georgia border. These combine to form the Apalachicola that flows into Florida and eventually out into the Gulf. There are a whole bunch of reasons this river is threatened but the core problem is mismanagement and disagreement at the state(s) level. Georgia uses the rivers to supply drinking water to Atlanta, and as the metro area has grown, they’ve been using so much water that there isn’t enough left downstream for Alabama and Florida to use for agriculture, or anything else. The three states have been fighting over this watershed for over two decades and as more and more water gets used for competing human needs, there is less and less left to support the ecosystems along the rivers, which is why it topped the endangered list this year.

This is far from the only fresh water battle going on in the country right now. In Colorado a truce was just declared in the fight over rainwater. On April 1st legislation was passed that will make rain barrels legal as of August 10th. Other states have disputes over who can use rainwater for what, but Colorado was the only place where catching and storing rainwater in a barrel on your own property was completely banned until now. But this isn’t a total win for the pro-rain barrel side, as legislators were careful to add an amendment stating, “The use of rain barrels does not constitute a water right.”

It feels crazily un-American to not have the right to catch water that falls from the sky onto your own land, but in Colorado, and most of the Western U.S., water rights are based on priority; basically whoever started using a particular water source first has the right to keep using it. About 90% of Colorado’s water, some of which was once rain, is used for agriculture, and the agriculture industry obviously doesn’t want to lose the rights to that water. Rain barrel advocates claim that the loss of water to rain barrels will be negligible, but just in case, the new law includes language that requires the State Engineer to report every few years on whether small-scale residential rain collection is adversely affecting downstream water users. The language in that amendment actually sounds closer to how water rights are determined in the Eastern U.S.

Most states in the East determine water usage by what’s called Regulated Riparian rights. This means that whoever owns the property that freshwater is on can use it as long as it doesn’t unreasonably interfere with the flow of the water and the ability of other landowners downstream to use it too. This seems simple enough but as the Apalachicola shows, Eastern water laws can lead to disputes too.

The difference in water regulation between the East and West stems from the fact that during settlement by Europeans, the East had a lot of water and the West didn’t, so the Eastern way of doing things wasn’t feasible out West. It’s not the 1800s anymore; clean, fresh water is not really an abundant resource anywhere and human needs are no longer the only priority to consider when determining water use. But our policy is not keeping up. The Western rules favor historical users whether or not they’re using water responsibly and the Eastern rules aren’t adapting well to population growth and other changes. These outdated rules have created arguments all across the country. If you Google “water war name of your state” something recent will probably come up. It would be nice if there were some overarching national guidelines to enable states to create updated, functional, fair, water usage laws, but so far Federal legislators have been avoiding the conflicts. For the time being it’s every state, and every water user for themselves. So if you live in a state and/or use water you might have to fight for it in the near future, if you aren’t already.

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Image Credit: Carol Dupre on Flickr

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