Southeast water and beyond

Guest post by Gerrit Jobsis, southeast regional director of American Rivers:

I was pleased to serve on a discussion panel after the showing of the award winning documentary film, FLOW – For Love of Water, directed by Irena Salina.  The film chronicles the dire prospect of a global shortage of clean water and how multinational corporations and water cartels are privatizing the world’s water resources. It also inspires, through the stories of citizens across all socioeconomic classes, from every corner of the world – India, South Africa, Bolivia, Michigan – as they stand arm in arm against corporate giants to fight for their right to clean, affordable water.  There was no lack of passion among the audience who participated in the panel session.

In several ways, the United States is far ahead of many countries because of our strong environmental laws like the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.  We still face challenges. 

We have no national policy or regulation to assure there will be sufficient water flows needed for healthy rivers.  This authority was delegated for the most part to the states.  Most states west of the Mississippi allow for private water rights through what is known as “prior appropriation”.   While not always effective at keeping healthy water flows in rivers, at least most Western states have a regulatory process for water use and withdrawals.

Water regulation of most Eastern states is under the “riparian doctrine” where all riverside land owners are allowed to use as much water as they want as long as they don’t cause harm to downstream water users.  The great thing about the riparian doctrine is that it assures water will remain a public resource as private water rights are not recognized.  The shortfall is that it is nebulous with no clear definition of how much water use by one party is too much.  The courts are often the only venue for water disputes.

The riparian doctrine worked in Eastern states for hundreds of years because water was generally abundant, especially compared to the more arid West.  Now with explosive population growth, persistent droughts, and climate change, Southeastern states face monumental water management challenges without the needed rules and regulations.

American Rivers is shaping water management policy in North and South Carolina through our Water Supply program.  At this time neither state has a direct way of limiting water withdrawals or ensuring healthy flows remain in our rivers.  Key issues that remain to be resolved are:

  • The amount of water needed in our rivers, considering their diversity
  • How to handle existing water users
  • Water rights of utilities for the water captured by hydroelectric dams
  • Water withdrawal permits