Florida to Georgia: God helps those who help themselves
This op-ed appeared Dec. 16 in the Orlando Sentinel.
By: Christine A. Klein
Christine A. Klein is a professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where she teaches water law and natural-resources law.
This week the governors of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia will discuss the allocation of the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers (ACF) among the three states.
As the Southeast struggles against an exceptional drought, Georgia has tried all the easy fixes. Last month, Gov. Sonny Perdue even led a prayer service on the steps of the state Capitol.
But before seeking divine intervention, remember this: God helps those who help themselves.
Looking forward, what can the states learn from the current crisis to help themselves in the future?
First, they can adopt detailed water plans.
As any canoeist knows, one carefully planned paddle stroke now will do more than 10 frantic strokes just before the canoe crashes into an obstacle. Planning is just as important for state water officials.
Georgia lacks a comprehensive, modern water code. It currently treats surface water and groundwater separately, an antiquated throwback to the days when groundwater was deemed mysterious and beyond regulation.
Existing Georgia law also contains a gaping loophole for farm use, which consumes the lion’s share of the state’s water. Virtually all farm use dating back to 1988 is exempt from permitting requirements. Even golf course irrigation systems may qualify as “farm use.”
More broadly, Georgia needs to adopt a statewide water plan. Although authorized since 2004, lawmakers have been dragging their feet. The current draft plan will not be fully operative until at least 2011, under the best of conditions. Meanwhile, the state population is projected to increase 32 percent from 2000-2015.
Second, the states must fairly share the waters of the ACF Basin.
For almost 20 years, Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been embroiled in an acrimonious dispute over basin waters.
Georgia has tried to take unfair advantage of its upstream location. It has pressured the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to operate federal reservoirs for the primary benefit of Atlanta’s relentlessly growing population.
In contrast, for almost a century it has been absolutely routine legal practice for neighboring states to negotiate agreements for sharing interstate rivers. Importantly, there has been no special treatment for upstream or quickly-growing states such as Georgia.
Third, the states should avoid short-term fixes that may cause long-term damage to endangered species and aquatic ecosystems.
Contrary to some reports, the current dispute is not one of fish vs. people. True, Florida’s mussels, sturgeon, oysters and shrimp need water to survive. But until very recent emergency orders, Georgia’s people have dumped significant amounts of water onto their suburban lawns and golf courses. And Florida’s oysters have supported the livelihood of numerous fishing families.
The Bush administration appears to be buying the fish vs. people story line. Last month, U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne attempted to broker a deal among the three states. Subsequently, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a plan for “Exceptional Drought Operations.” Under that proposal upstream reservoirs would store more water, choking off flows into Florida by as much as 16 percent.
The White House gave the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only two weeks to review the proposal. In its biological opinion, the service concluded that the plan will likely result in the “take” (a euphemism for “killing”) of mussels that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Offering small comfort, the service did not predict the demise of the entire species.
The Bush administration has bought the fish vs. people story line before, and the results were ugly. But that’s another tale, involving the allocation of water in 2002 to farmers and ranchers rather than fish in the drought-stricken Klamath River Basin of California and Oregon. The result was, in the words of The Washington Post, “the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River.”
Plan. Share. Respect the natural environment that sustains our rivers in the long term.
If the drought-stricken states take these measures to help themselves, then surely the rain gods will take note.
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