That states battle over borderland waterways may not surprise readers of BlueSky Blog. But Georgia and Tennessee are disputing the actual location of their border along the Tennessee River. Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute, wrote about this conflict at Huffington Post:
What is the issue? If the border can be redrawn (or “corrected” as Georgia puts it), it would give them access to the northernmost bank of the Tennessee River, and a new right to water resources that Georgia would now, desperately, like to tap to satisfy growing demands in the Atlanta region.
Peter’s article only skimmed the surface of how many water disputes are boiling over in the US. The US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) agreed to listen to Texas and Oklahoma argue over a Texan water supplier trying to get water from a portion of Red River that Oklahoma claims as its own. Texas also just submitted another water dispute to SCOTUS this time with New Mexico over the Rio Grande. Last year, SCOTUS punted on deciding a long-running argument between Georgia, Florida and Alabama over access to water originating from Lake Lanier. Meanwhile, other state and tribal water disputes simmer on: Kansas and Nebraska over the Republican River Basin; Oregon, Klamath Tribes and many others over Klamath River Basin; and anywhere the Colorado River meanders.
These water disputes persist due to simple economics: demand exceeds available supply. That point about “available” supply explains a lot. Typically, government agencies in charge of releasing the water supplies have to satisfy many different and opposing water uses from conservation to recreation to consumption. Some argue that, considering we have strong institutions and respect for property rights, a pure commercial water market untethered from government restrictions would solve water disputes in the US. Yes, that might reduce transaction costs associated with water allocation, but I doubt that it will make litigation over water less likely. If anything, strong property rights and rule of law may embolden Americans to litigate to fiercely protect what is “mine.” With natural resources like water I would recommend calling truce and empowering a multi-party stakeholder group to work with a team of scientists to create an evidence-based plan that the group can implement. Yes, it is a messy and difficult process. The stakeholders in Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin, though, are showing it can work.