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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Southern States Water Crisis

Air Date: Week of

As the sprawling capital Atlanta gobbles up green space, it’s also siphoning off a critical portion of the region’s water supply. As David Pollock reports, officials in Alabama and Florida are duking it out with Georgia in a conflict that pits the interests of area farmers against local fisher folk.


CURWOOD: Raging debates over rights to water are well known in western states but rare in the east, especially in the southeast, where water is generally plentiful. That's all beginning to change. Thanks to rapid growth and more large-scale farming, southern water is increasingly at the heart of some complex and bitter conflicts. David Pollock reports from Atlanta.

(Clicking sounds)

GREEN: Here we're testing for fluoride levels. We add fluoride to the water.

POLLOCK: In Atlanta's central water plan, supervisor Tommy Green watches water swirling in a beaker and waits for a digital readout of the sample.


GREEN: Of course, there's a certain level that we have to maintain, and manage it on an hourly basis.

POLLOCK: Atlanta's rapidly growing population gets much of its water from the Chattahoochee River, and purifies it here and at 2 other plants before piping it out to the city. Over 3 million people from Atlanta and outlying areas depend on this river basin for water. In fact, no other river system of a similar size in America handles a greater demand; and the area's thirst for water, says supervisor Green, is hardly waning.

GREEN: We anticipate growth. We've increased our holding capacity, our storage capacity, so that we are preparing for future growth. We've also modified our filters here at the plant so that we can produce more water.

POLLOCK: Atlanta's rapid expansion has drained its roads and dirtied its air, and now there is increasing concern about its need for water. Bob Kerr represents Georgia in its interstate battle over water rights.

KERR: Georgia and the southeast have been fortunate. For many, many years, as had more water than we knew what to do with. And that's one of the reasons that so many people have been attracted here. High quality of life, a lot of greenery, beautiful lawns, and so on. But there is a limit to how much we can do with the amount of water we have.

POLLOCK: Residents of neighboring Alabama and Florida have similar worries, and they've gone to battle with Georgia over 2 river systems which begin in Georgia and end in Alabama and Florida. Water Stevenson is one of Alabama's chief negotiators in what some here are calling the Water Wars.

STEVENSON: If the flows into Alabama are reduced, it will have significant economic and environmental consequences to the river system and to the citizens of the state of Alabama.

POLLOCK: Officials in both Florida and Alabama say Georgia residents shouldn't be allowed to take more water out of the rivers that originate in Georgia but flow out of the state. But in southern Georgia, some say economic survival is at stake.

(Truck engine)

BRIDGES: When it gets on up to where it's fruiting, you need more water, and we know that. This from past experience.

POLLOCK: John Bridges, Jr., and his family farm several thousand acres in south Georgia. As he rides through one of the cornfields, the tall, healthy corn stalks strike the mirrors on his truck. He says commercial farming these days is expensive and risky. And, he says, he couldn't make it without irrigation.

BRIDGES: It is essential. Basically this crop, and most of the other crops we grow, we just couldn't grow without irrigation.

(Door shuts; a pump runs)

POLLOCK: An irrigation pump sits in the middle of the cornfield.

(To Pollock) Now, on a day like this, when the threat of rain is around, do you sit around watching the weather channel and hoping and praying?

BRIDGES: We take what comes, and we make a decision when we get rain what to do with irrigation. But because there's a 50% chance of rain today doesn't mean a whole lot till you see it.

POLLOCK: To battle this uncertainty, farmers like Bridges depend on elaborate irrigation systems like this one.


POLLOCK: Large pipes held up in the air by frames on wheels slowly move around the field. The whole system pivots around a well that draws on an aquifer fed by the increasingly strained rivers that start in northern Georgia.

BRIDGES: We don't see the wells going dry and the problems with water, but they certainly might be there in other parts of the state or in other parts of the southeast. But in this general area, we haven't seen it yet.

POLLOCK: But the constant and growing drain on supplies, especially during the drought-prone summer, has increased tensions. Florida residents are especially worried about the effect on the Appalachicola River and the bay it flows into in the Gulf of Mexico. They fear that when Georgia farmers take water out of the system that feeds the river, they'll damage the ecosystem and the economy of the area.

(An engine starts up; chains)

POLLOCK: Here on the shore of Appalachicola Bay, the biggest industry is fishing, oystering and shrimping mostly. Levar Sullivan, who's fished here for 35 years, is at a dock working on his boat's new motor.

SULLIVAN: If you don't get enough fresh water in this bay, it -- you're in a hearse the whole day [phrase?]. You've got to have a certain amount of fresh water.

POLLOCK: Sullivan says the river water carries algae and other nutrients down to the bay, feeding the oysters and fish.


POLLOCK: Further down the shore, 2 of Sullivan's fellow fishermen are unloading bags of oysters into a warehouse. They blame Georgians for threatening their way of life.

MOORE: They've got the water so backed up, we don't get no river water now.

POLLOCK: Oyster fisherman Chris Moore says much is at stake.

MOORE: You take the fresh water away, you're going to lose your oysters. You lose your oysters, you're going to start losing the little fish. You start losing the little fish, you're going to start losing the big fish.

POLLOCK: And that, the fishermen say, could mean the end of the area's major industry. Florida officials say they foresee a time when Georgia's water needs threaten the economy and the ecology of the area. But Bob Kerr, Georgia's water negotiator, says officials in his state are acutely aware of the need to conserve water and plan for the future, for their sake as well as for neighboring states.

KERR: We have already informed all of the metro governments, all the water managers, that the year that we're looking at where the demand would exceed a reasonable supply is about 2030. So we have about 30 years in which to develop new infrastructure, new sources of water in the metro Atlanta area.

POLLOCK: But Florida officials have proposed a plan to hold Georgia consumption at its current levels until the year 2010, and in the meantime collect more data about how much water is in the aquifers and where it goes. Georgia officials object, saying the plan would give away their right to future growth. The Federal government had given the 3 states until last December to work out the disagreement. Officials are now negotiating under an extension which expires at the end of this year. There is little sign that the states are moving closer to their own solution. If progress doesn't come soon to resolve the water wars, the region's residents may have to turn to the Supreme Court to impose a settlement. For Living on Earth, I'm David Pollock in Atlanta.



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