Peter Gleick: An Eastern Judge Points the Way to Solving Western Water Problems

Updated: July 24, 2009

chattahoocheeA District Court judge in the southeastern United States has just described our water problems with stunning clarity. Not only that, in one sentence, he offered the solution.

You think we only fight over water in the western U.S.? No, we’re not alone. For many, many years, Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been quarreling over water. The details are complex, and the legal issues are muddled by Congressional decisions, past court rulings and the vast complications that result when three states with different interests, needs and objectives start to fight.

Without going into all the gory details here, the basic issue is whether Georgia can use as much water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River (ACF) system, and especially from Lake Lanier reservoir, as it wants to meet the rapidly growing needs of Atlanta and neighboring suburbs. Florida and Alabama say no — their interests must also be considered, and since they are downstream on the ACF basin and would suffer as Georgia takes more and more, they sued.

Peter Gleick
Dr. Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, an internationally recognized water expert and a MacArthur Fellow.

The issue has been in the courts for decades. But today, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson issued a stunning ruling — Georgia has been taking more water for water supply than permitted under the law, and they have three years to either get permission from Congress to take this water or they must stop.

[Here is the full District Court ruling.]

Water Number: 3 years
This is how long Atlanta (and Georgia) have to address their overuse of water.

This decision was inevitable, given the law, and the judge is simply ruling on what the law says. No doubt the lawyers will go around and around for decades more; or Congress will muddle things up, or something else will happen to keep this conflict alive.

But that’s not what this post is about. Instead, I want to call attention to a single paragraph in his 97-page ruling. The lawyers will ignore it. Rather, he was speaking to the rest of us and made an observation that should go to the heart of every single water manager and user in the country. On page 94 of his ruling, Judge Magnuson said:

Too often, state, local, and even national government actors do not consider the long-term consequences of their decisions. Local governments allow unchecked growth because it increases tax revenue, but these same governments do not sufficiently plan for the resources such unchecked growth will require. Nor do individual citizens consider frequently enough their consumption of our scarce resources, absent a crisis situation such as that experienced in the ACF basin in the last few years. The problems faced in the ACF basin will continue to be repeated throughout this country, as the population grows and more undeveloped land is developed. Only by cooperating, planning, and conserving can we avoid the situations that gave rise to this litigation.

Please, read that entire paragraph again, and especially the last sentence.

The problems faced in the ACF basin will continue to be repeated throughout this country… Only by cooperating, planning, and conserving can we avoid the situations that gave rise to this litigation…”

There are water limits after all. Shouldn’t we try to understand, and plan, for them?

Dr. Gleick’s blog posts are provided in cooperation with the SFGate. Previous posts can be found here.

1 reply
  1. Thomas Slaback says:

    This is only a symptom of the greater disease. Too many people. We have been fortunate in the past that our population in the US was not like that of the rest of the world. We are catching up. If we continue water use as in the past and do not check our population growth, we will run out of water. Our local, water rustler, politiians say that without growth we will die. In reality, if we continue to grow at the average rate of the last dozen years, we will literally turn to dust and be blown away.

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