States seek a truce in the water wars
The need to share water from rivers that cross state lines has been a constant source of contention in the desert West and, now, in the drought-stricken East. As a result, state officials on both coasts have been forced to plan procedures for times when water is in short supply.
In December, the seven states that share the Colorado River reached a historic agreement. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne signed an agreement between Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, California, Arizona and Nevada, ending years of contention between the states over use of the river. “This is the most important agreement among the seven basin states since the original Colorado River Compact of 1922,” Kempthorne said at the signing. The agreement sets rules that will remain in effect until 2026, governing which states will reduce water use during shortages; operational rules for reservoirs Lake Powell and Lake Mead that draw from the river; surplus water distribution guidelines and new water conservation initiatives.
The basin states have been working on the agreement since 2003, says Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Until now, the seven states only had a few legal guidelines on handling water shortages and no immediate motivation to create a specific agreement, Kightlinger says. “Because there was no shortage looming, we just put it off and put it off and never got down to it,” he says. “Now, we are staring in the face of a potential shortage two or three years down the track, and so people realize we had better figure out how we’re going to do this.”
Three Southeastern states divided geographically and politically by the Chattahoochee River hope to form a similar pact. Shortly before signing the Colorado River basin agreement, Kempthorne received orders from President Bush to create an agreement between Georgia, Alabama and Florida regarding those states’ use of the Chattahoochee River. “[The Eastern water conflict] is a situation any Westerner will recognize: accusations, litigation, slugging it out in the media,” Kempthorne told members of the Colorado River Water Users Association when signing the Colorado River agreement. “You know the deal.”
In his state-of-the-state speech in January, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue vowed to invest $120 million in water infrastructure and reservoirs for the state, which has been suffering from years of record drought. Georgia also has been locked in a contest with neighboring Alabama and Florida over the amount of water it can keep from the Chattahoochee to supply the rapidly growing Atlanta metro area. “We will respect the resources that we share with our neighbors,” Perdue said. “But, hear me now. We will not allow others outside this state to hamper our progress by limiting our access to the waters that fall on our land.”
In December, Perdue, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist met in Tallahassee, Fla., with federal officials, including Kempthorne and representatives from President Bush’s administration, to discuss the rules that determine how much of the Chattahoochee’s water the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases downstream. In January, the governors’ staffs met in Washington and Atlanta to work out the principles of an agreement, and officials hope to arrange another meeting to form a final agreement by March, says Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley.
Previous attempts to settle the states’ water disputes have been hampered by uncertainty about drought’s effect in the region, Brantley says, but now they are known and not hypothetical. “We are in the middle of a historic drought, and the most difficult situation to prepare for is historic drought,” he says. “If we can come to some agreements on our current situation … the longer term issues should be a lot easier.”
Water sharing laws vary from state to state, says Robert Holland, spokesperson for the Corps of Engineers’ Atlanta-based South Atlantic Division, so determining if the two agreements will serve as templates for other jurisdictions is difficult to determine. “Obviously, water [use] is becoming more contentious [across] the country,” Holland says.