urge more federal involvement in water crisis
By Joan Lowy
Scripps Howard News Service
- Even as Western states grapple with one of the worst
droughts in a century, there is growing concern among
public officials and water experts that the relatively
water-rich East also faces critical long-term supply problems.
Population growth has strained supplies in many areas,
particularly in the Southeast and in coastal communities.
Over-pumping has depleted groundwater and led to saltwater
contamination in some places.
Groundwater levels in parts of Wisconsin, for example,
are declining at rates approaching 17 feet per year. Subsiding
groundwater supplies are also evident in New York, Ohio,
and Illinois because of unrestrained use by homes, farms,
Progress on reducing water pollution has largely stalled
and pollution is even worsening in some places due to
runoff from urban sprawl and huge factory farms. The national
cost of replacing aging and leaky water and sewer pipes
- some nearly a century old - is estimated at more than
a trillion dollars.
Increased competition for limited supplies has also pitted
Eastern states against each other in bitter legal battles
reminiscent of the Western water wars that prompted Mark
Twain to observe: "Whiskey is for drinking; water
is for fighting."
Virginia and Maryland, for example, are haggling over
rights to the Potomac River that date back to a grant
from King Charles I in 1632. The case is on the Supreme
Court's fall docket. South Carolina is feuding with North
Carolina over the Pee Dee River and Georgia over the Savannah
In one of the most intractable eastern water fights,
Atlanta is warring with downstream users in Georgia, Florida
and Alabama over the Chattahoochee River. Governors of
the three states pledged at a White House ceremony in
February to personally handle negotiations in an effort
to break the impasse.
"It's a crisis in the making," said Freddy
Vang, deputy director of the South Carolina Department
of Natural Resources. "We have enjoyed for 300 years
an abundant supply of water, but the growth is such that
the water is no longer where you need it when you need
The situation has prompted calls from public officials
and water experts for greater federal involvement on the
premise that only a national effort can address supply
problems that are no longer limited to the arid West and
whose solutions are likely to be based on watersheds that
overlap state borders.
"In many areas, we do not have enough water for
forecasted long-term municipal and industrial use,"
warned the American Water Resources Association, whose
members include water engineers and state and local water
agencies, in a letter to President Bush and congressional
leaders earlier this year.
"Failure to address these water resources issues
now, as we move into the 21st century, could significantly
impact the economy, reduce our capacity to participate
in global markets, increase legal conflicts over rights
and uses, reverse progress on cleaning up our rivers and
restoring our natural areas (and) continue the escalation
of flood damages."
Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., has introduced a bill that would
create the first national water commission in 30 years.
The measure has had two hearings in the House in the past
The panel Linder said he envisions would not usurp state
and local governments' authority over water planning,
but would look for ways to help water agencies meet long-term
supply goals. That includes not only sharing information
on conservation and efficiency measures, but also facilitating
the construction of new dams and water storage projects.
"Last year, in the midst of a five-year drought,
50 trillion gallons of water fell on Georgia and most
of that water went out to sea without being used even
once," Linder said. "I'm talking about more
storage in all regions."
The trend over recent decades, however, has been in the
other direction - tearing down dams and other water-diversion
projects that have reduced stream flows and profoundly
affected freshwater ecosystems and driven many species
to near extinction.
"The problems that we have are not going to be fixed
by building new reservoirs and aqueducts and pipelines,"
said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute
for Studies in Development, Environment and Security.
"I'm very much in favor of a commission, but it
should focus on the right issues," said Gleick, an
internationally recognized water expert. That means better
ways to manage water supplies already in place, including
efficiency measures and new technologies, he said.
"We know how to solve our own water problems, but
knowing and doing are two different things. There are
long-term, sustainable solutions, but we're not implementing
Water agencies typically plan based on projected needs
for decades. The Census Bureau estimates the nation's
population will increase from 283 million in 2000 to more
than 400 million by 2050.
A large question mark is how climate change will affect
supplies. A recent report by the World Water Council said
there is "undeniable evidence'' that the world's
water cycle is already speeding up, causing more frequent
storms, floods and droughts and resulting in escalating
While scientists say it is too soon to connect any single
event to climate change, the prolonged drought in the
West and the more frequent droughts experienced in the
Southeast in recent years are the kinds of events that
have been widely forecast to result from global warming.
Likewise, water levels are at their lowest in decades
in many areas of the Great Lakes because of a combination
of decreased rainfall, several warmer-than-normal winters
that increased evaporation, and overuse of water by growing
communities, said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National
Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office. Lake Michigan
is nearing its lowest level in 150 years, he said.
"Over the last several years," Buchsbaum said,
"we believe we are seeing an exacerbation of the
natural cycle because of climate change and water overuse."