Who Owns Water?

In 2013 when I began work on I AM COYOTE: Readings for the Wild, I was fortunate enough to meet David Hanson, an acclaimed writer, photographer, and outdoorsman. David and his brother Michael recently completed “Who Owns Water,” a documentary film about the decades-old battle among Georgia, Alabama, and Florida for the rights to water from the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers. To document the clash, David and Michael spent a month paddling (and portaging) canoes from the Rivers’ headwaters to its terminus in the Gulf of Mexico.  Here’s the little-known story about an intense struggle for water rights in the American South, an area once considered invincible to drought.

“Water Wars! Give me another drink of whiskey and I’ll tell you something different.”

Uncle Tony of Columbia, GA told my brother Michael that at Tony’s riverside cattle ranch in south Georgia. Tony works at the Farley Nuclear Plant in nearby Dothan, AL. He’s like a lot of folks who live along the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Tony’s a southern outdoorsman, meaning he works with cattle, grows hay, hunts some. One time he grabbed a small alligator out of a roadside ditch and carried it into a nearby restaurant. They asked him to leave.

The water war Tony is talking about has been grinding away for two decades. It began when the Corps of Engineers planned to build Buford Dam in the worn-down Appalachian foothills near Gainesville, GA. That was 1950. The project would provide power and flood control, but, the feds imagined, it could also become a water resource for Atlanta’s growing population. The Corps asked Atlanta’s mayor William Hartsfield if the City would contribute. His response: “Certainly a city which is only one hundred miles below one of the greatest rainfall areas in the nation will never find itself in the position of a city like Los Angeles.”

And that’s the problem. Western river advocates have long battled thirsty, misplaced municipalities that have all but drained the Owens River in eastern California (piped to LA) and sucked the Colorado so hard it no longer reaches its natural mouth at the Sea of Cortes. East coasters with their week-long spring rains, summer thunderstorms, and fall hurricanes have historically been a saturated geography laced with streams, rivers, lakes, and aquifers, and a sense of never-ending water supply.

When Hartsfield turned down the Corps, Atlanta had a population of half a million. Now the city holds 5.5 million residents and relies on Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River, the smallest watershed for any major metropolitan area in the US. When severe droughts roll on for years, as happened in the late 2000s, Atlanta retains water in Lake Lanier, choking the vital flow for downstream users. At the Chattahoochee’s terminus in Apalachicola Bay, 427 river miles below Atlanta, the river’s freshwater influx creates one of the nation’s most productive (commercially and ecologically) fisheries and marine nurseries.

I grew up in Atlanta drinking (treated) Chattahoochee River water. It tasted fine. We used it to water the lawn, run the dishwasher, wash clothes. Once a year or so we’d spend an afternoon picnicking along the riverbank. Mainly we ignored it. Most of Atlanta does, unless the “Hooch,” as we call it, is flooding, polluted with e.Coli when heavy rains overwhelm the sewage system, or drying up during drought.

But the Hooch and its sister river to the east, the Flint, have been tied up in a legal battle that is slowly gaining the attention it needs. The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) Rivers flow through the three states, and each state needs the freshwater for reasons all of America needs freshwater: industry, power, development, drinking water for growing populations, agriculture, a healthy ecosystem, and recreation.

Currently, the state of Florida is suing Georgia over the amount of water it releases to Florida where the river crosses the border at Woodruff Dam. It’s certainly true that the minimum amount allowed to flow into Florida during times of drought (5000cfs) is too low for the health of the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay ecosystem, but Florida’s lawsuit seems more politically motivated than in tune with grassroots work taking place in the watershed among the various users. The Apalachicola Chattahoochee Flint Stakeholders group is a watershed-wide coalition of industry, conservation, community, and business interests who have been aggregating resources to devise a scientific plan for sharing the water. Something that all stakeholders can agree with. A Georgia Tech hydrology study has been completed but it’s rendered ineffectual with the court case restricting access to information.

Uncle Tony, like most people we met along our month-long canoe trip down the watershed, doesn’t watch documentary films and he doesn’t read the Huffington Post. My brother and I paddled the rivers from source to sea in 2013 and we’ve made a 48-minute documentary film about the journey and the water wars, not from the perspective of talking heads, but from the voices of people like Tony who know the river.

David Hanson



Map - ACF Three States - flat with icons