The Apalachicola River flows south through Georgia to Florida. Photo courtesy of Chris M Morris.
Like a never-ending sibling rivalry, Georgia and Florida have been fighting over water for decades. Both states maintain that their water withdrawals from the shared Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) watershed should take priority over the other’s. Now, the two states have taken their long-standing dispute to the U.S. Supreme Court.
While it may take years for the highest court to decide the case, there’s a policy alternative that could settle the issue without litigious wrangling: water markets. Using a system of clearly defined and tradable water rights to allocate scarce water could help resolve the Georgia-Florida conflict in a peaceful and efficient manner — and it has already proven successful in other areas of the country.
The Flint and Chattahoochee rivers both begin in Georgia. Near the Florida border, they join to form the Apalachicola River before finally flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. Altogether, more than 4 million people rely on these rivers for clean water, including those who work in the Apalachicola Bay oyster industry.
Florida’s representatives claim that Atlanta residents’ taps and Georgia farmers’ irrigation do not leave enough water in the river for the oyster industry downstream. They are asking the court to cap Georgia’s water use and impose even more stringent restrictions during times of drought. On the other side, Georgia’s lawyers argue that the deterioration of the oyster industry is due to mismanagement, not a lack of water, and that limiting the state’s water consumption would jeopardize its economy.
The hidden cause of much of this conflict is that water rights are not clearly defined. In other words, the states have not clarified rights to specific quantities of water, so it is unclear when the use of water by one state infringes on the rightful use of the other. Whether defined in court or an interstate compact, defining each state’s ownership to a quantity of water is the first step in achieving peace in this water war.
With defined rights, trading water through markets allows for greater cooperation and flexibility in allocating the resource, especially when it becomes scarce. In a water market, rights to use a set amount of water are granted to users. These rights can then be bought and sold between users to put the resource to its most productive use – whether residential consumption, oyster farming, or any other purpose. This would allow competing water users to work out changes in their water needs over time not by fighting or litigation, but instead through mutually beneficial exchange
In the specific case of the ACF watershed, the Army Corps of Engineers could establish a daily “water budget,” consisting of the total withdrawals allowed from the basin based on past consumption patterns. Water allocations could then be granted to each user — from residential developers and hydroelectric plants to oyster farmers and agricultural producers based on average daily use. These rights would be divisible and transferable, so users who wanted more water could simply purchase it from other users. Or if some users could easily cut back their water consumption, they would have a strong incentive to sell their surplus water to other users who might need it more.
A water market could also easily adapt to changing conditions. When rainfall is abundant, the Army Corps of Engineers could increase each user’s allotment. In cases of drought, they could cut daily permit allowances for everyone by an equal percentage. The Corps could then serve as a water broker, facilitating transactions among users by matching buyers and sellers and helping negotiate the terms of exchange.
Water markets have proven successful in other parts of the country, like northern California. In 2008, the Scott River Water Trust was concerned that not enough water was being left in the waterway for fish habitat. Instead of litigating, the trust was able to lease water rights from farmers — essentially paying them to leave water in the stream. A similar approach could be applied in the South, where competing users are currently limited to fighting battles in the courts instead of through the marketplace.
Fighting over water has left users in Florida and Georgia unsure about their future access to necessary water. Defining clear, enforceable, and transferable water rights could help ensure that water is allocated to its most productive uses and finally put an end to this water war.
This article originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on November 26, 2016. For more, see "Averting Water Disputes: A Southeastern Case Study," published by PERC.