The Water Wars Move East

As states in the Southeast fight over limited water resources, conservationists struggle to keep the region’s river flows high enough to sustain wildlife

  • Doreen Cubie
  • Oct 01, 2009
FOR MUCH of the past two years, Henry Cowen, a fishing guide on Georgia’s Lake Lanier, worried about his business as the water dropped so low that the lake’s red clay banks towered over his boat. Created in the 1950s when the Chattahoochee River was dammed, the 26-mile-long reservoir reached its lowest level ever in December 2007, when it receded more than 20 feet. Some marinas, he says, “went bone dry.”

The heavy rains that fell last spring and early summer brought an end to the drought that had been plaguing the region. As Lanier’s water levels came back up, Cowen saw his business improve. But like many of his neighbors, he had learned a hard lesson and now practices water conservation every day at his home. “Water is finite,” he says.

The Southeast, observes NWF climate scientist Amanda Staudt, “didn’t need to think about water supplies until recently, but it should have.” Between 1960 and 2000, as the region’s population doubled and its water use tripled, abundant rain was falling. However, a 2008 NWF report graphing the historic rainfall levels for the southeastern United States shows droughts were commonplace between 1895 and 1960. And in the future, says Staudt, the report’s author, global warming may make the region’s water supplies even more limited.

Much is at stake for both people and wildlife. Environmental flow, the concept of leaving enough water in a river to sustain plants and animals, has long been a contentious topic in the American West. Now the water wars—fights over who owns the rights to the resources in certain waterways—are erupting in the southeastern states, which have a rich diversity of fish, crayfish, freshwater mussels, turtles and salamanders found nowhere else in the world. A single river in Tennessee has more fish species than all of Europe’s waterways. Florida’s Apalachicola River Basin harbors the highest density of amphibians and reptiles in North America, north of Mexico. Many other species also rely on southern U.S. streams.

In one squabble that has gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, North Carolina and South Carolina are squaring off over the Catawba River. Named the most endangered river in the country in 2008 by the nonprofit group American Rivers, the Catawba rises in the foothills of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains and flows past Charlotte, one of the fastest growing cities in the country, before crossing the state line into South Carolina.

“The Catawba already provides drinking water for 1.68 million people and it has 14 dams, 13 of which are hydroelectric,” says Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman, the full-time watchdog for the 225-mile-long waterway. The river also cools two nuclear and three coal-fired power plants, and other industries tap its resources as well. But the action that triggered the lawsuit by the State of South Carolina was a petition by two North Carolina towns, Concord and Kannapolis, to withdraw 36 million gallons a day from the river even though, notes Merryman, these communities are located in a different watershed, the Yadkin-Pee Dee River Basin.

“The water would be lost forever from the Catawba,” he says. Such interbasin transfers were once prohibited under the U.S. Clean Water Act, but in 2008 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule exempting them from the law. Environmentalists are challenging the ruling in court, fearing pathogens, pollutants and even invasive species could be transported along with the water.

Other southern rivers are facing similar threats. One of them is the St. John’s, which rises in central Florida and flows north to the sea at Jacksonville. Because of rampant development in the Orlando area, state officials are proposing to siphon 260 million gallons a day out of the St. John’s and its largest tributary, the Ocklawaha. In the past, says Neil Armingeon, the St. John’s riverkeeper, most of the state’s water supply has come from the Florida aquifer. But growth in central Florida is outstripping the ability of the aquifer to provide a sustainable drinking water source.

Armingeon says no one knows what taking that much water would do to the St. John’s. Of particular concern is the river’s delicate balance between freshwater and saltwater. “The salinity line is moving farther upstream,” he says, and that could stress aquatic plants and animals. Right now, for example, beds of underwater vegetation called eelgrass are common in portions of the St. John’s. These plants are nurseries for fish, blue crabs and shrimp, and also provide cover for stingrays. Manatees swim into the river’s tributaries in the spring and summer to feed on their luxuriant growth. But “eelgrass is very sensitive to increases in salinity,” says Armingeon. “They’re sessile plants. If they can’t tolerate the changes, they’re done.”

Lower water levels in the St. John’s and other southern rivers will also bring other consequences. “There will be less water to dilute pollution,” says Lora Zimmerman, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist based in Charleston, South Carolina. “When flows are low,” she adds, “thermal discharges from power plants and factories also have a bigger impact.” Zimmerman is especially concerned about freshwater mussels, many of which are already endangered or threatened. “They occupy shallow water at the edge of a river,” she says. “When water is withdrawn, they are left high and dry.”

Another mussel researcher, Steve Golladay, an associate scientist at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center in southwestern Georgia, notes that “rivers do many things. It’s very easy to put an economic value on water supply, but it’s more challenging to put a number on the other benefits of a river.” Wastewater discharge, recreation and the support of rare plants and animals are often overlooked or underappreciated, he says, adding, “We can’t take our water resources for granted anymore.”

That is especially true now that global warming is expected to exacerbate shortages, says NWF’s Staudt. Climate change is predicted to bring longer periods of drought in the future. Paradoxically, she notes, it will also trigger periods of intense rainfall, with heavy precipitation falling during a short period of time. The result: more runoff and less water available for drinking, irrigating crops and other purposes. Also, sea-level rise as a result of warming will mean more saltwater intrusion into aquifers along the coast. And recent studies show the underground intrusion of saltwater into wells may extend farther inland than previously believed.

Many experts see water conservation as a key solution to supply problems. “Floridians use prodigious amounts of water,” says Armingeon, between 160 and 170 gallons per person per day. “We’re using water at a rate that is not sustainable.”

“We need to start treating water as the precious resource it is,” adds Jenny Hoffner, director of water supply for American Rivers. She believes communities in the Southeast could cut their usage by as much as 40 percent by adopting such measures as installing water-efficient fixtures and stopping leaks. Doing so could support sensible growth in the Southeast without building new reservoirs. “We have enough water,” says Hoffner, “if we use it in smart, innovative ways.”

Frequent contributor Doreen Cubie is based in South Carolina.

NWF PRIORITY: Promoting Water Resource Protection 
As part of its efforts to educate lawmakers and the public about the need to protect watershed habitat for wildlife in the Southeast, NWF compiled the latest scientific research on global warming and water supplies, competition for resources and how to prepare for managing the region’s water-availability challenges. To learn more, visit NWF extreme weather.

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