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Water Wars Brew In Southeast*

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Water wars brew in Southeast

By Larry Copeland


ATLANTA -- Water.

No one expected it to become such a critical resource so fast in a region long thought to have an inexhaustible supply.

But as the Southeast booms through an era of exponential growth, water -- who controls it and how it should be managed -- is fast becoming one of the most important and controversial issues across the region.

States are concerned about how to best share the water in rivers and streams that cross state lines. They're struggling with how to transfer water from less-developed areas to boomtowns. They are forming agencies to ensure they have enough clean water and sewage-treatment capacity to maintain future growth. They also are worried about the effects of a persistent drought in much of the South.

And in the back of almost everyone's mind is the ongoing Tri-State Water War.

For more than three years, negotiators for Georgia, Florida and Alabama have tried to work out a formula to allocate water in two major river basins. A settlement was expected June 22, but it fell through when Florida backed out at the last minute to fine-tune its proposals. Now the states hope to reach an agreement by July 30, when negotiators plan to meet again.

Center of conflict

At the center of the conflict is the Chattahoochee River, which runs from Georgia, along the Alabama border, to the Florida state line, where it merges with the Flint River to form the Apalachicola. It was Atlanta's growth that sparked the water war.

As Atlanta boomed, Alabama officials worried that the upstream city would hamper their state's growth by taking too much water out of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin and a second basin they share, the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa.

The Chattahoochee River provides drinking water to more than 2 million people in the Atlanta area and disperses treated waste.

Alabama sued to limit Georgia's use of the water. It was joined by Florida, which feared that Georgia's water needs would deplete the freshwater flow of the Apalachicola into Apalachicola Bay, which is home to Florida's shellfish industry.

''At one time in this region, we thought water was a plentiful and unending resource,'' says Wesley Woolf, director of the Deep South office of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Atlanta. ''Now, with the unending growth here, we've realized it's a finite resource. Now that we have sprawled out to the max, we're going to have to start thinking and doing things differently.''

That's already happening.

Political leaders in places such as the Carolinas and Tennessee are taking a much more serious approach toward the allocation and availability of water than they did as recently as five years ago, says Tim Gangaware, associate director of the Tennessee Water Resources Center. And the reason, many agree, is the region's breakneck growth.

Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and South Carolina each grew at a faster rate than the national average of 13.1% during the 1990s. Georgia grew 26.4%; Florida, 23.5%; North Carolina, 21.4%; Tennessee, 16.7%; and South Carolina, 15.1%. Alabama grew 10.1%.

As more people crowd into these states and developers build more subdivisions and malls, the need for more water has increased. Water use by those six states doubled from 1970 to 1995, according to Susan Hutson, the region's water specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

States' plans

Florida has faced explosive growth for decades and began attacking its water problem nearly 30 years ago. Florida's population grew by 78.7% in the 1950s and 37.2% in the 1960s. In 1972, the Florida Legislature enacted the Water Resources Act, which created five semiautonomous water districts with the authority to levy property taxes to meet their water needs.

The act also directed the Department of Natural Resources to examine the needs of Florida's fish and wildlife, and ensure their protection.

Georgia is studying how much it should reduce withdrawals from the Savannah River. Officials in the Hilton Head Island area contend that the heavy withdrawals from the river are creating a saltwater problem on the island, says Rod Cherry, chief of the Earth Science Group at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. As the Savannah River's water level is lowered downstream, saltwater levels upstream -- near the mouth of the river -- begin to rise, making the water unfit for drinking, he says.

''Problems we would have ignored 50 years ago, we can no longer ignore,'' Cherry says.


Water skirmishes in the Southeast do not always cross state lines.

* This year, Georgia's Legislature created the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. The district's 29-member board soon will consider how to solve what some are calling the ''water quality crisis'' in the 18-county metro Atlanta region.

The board was created partly because many of Georgia's cities, towns and rural areas were concerned that Atlanta's water needs could leave them high and dry, says James Kundell, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Georgia who chairs the board. ''There were concerns Atlanta was going to pump water from all over the state,'' he says.

* In Alabama, Gov. Don Siegelman formed the Commission on Environmental Initiatives last year to help him determine environmental priorities.

''The water situation in this state has changed tremendously, and in a very short period of time,'' says Beth Stewart, executive director of the Cahaba River Society, a non-profit group working to protect the 190-mile river.

Siegelman's 63-member commission -- said to be the largest in state history studied a number of water issues. Its goal is to establish a permit system for big water users. The state keeps records of any person or business that uses more than 100,000 gallons of water a day. But there is no system for regulating such withdrawals, says Pete Conroy, commission chairman.

* In some areas of North Carolina, where groundwater is the principal source for agricultural use, the underground supply is being drawn down, says Ken Reckhow, professor at Duke University and director of the North Carolina Water Resources Research Institute. ''We're going to have to be much more stringent in how we use water, particularly groundwater, but also, over time, surface water,'' Reckhow says.

Experts say it is unclear whether these patchwork efforts will result in a regional water policy. Several states sent representatives to a Southern water supply round table last year. But nothing was resolved. ''The basic problem is that while the issue (of water supply) is growing visibility, nobody's quite sure what to do about it yet,'' says water specialist Dave Feldman of the University of Tennessee.

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