How many times have we in the Southeast heard that we are blessed with fresh water? Blessed with ample rainfall, and blessed with many rivers. In Chattanooga, that's especially true, as we sit right at the middle of the nation's fifth largest river system — the 652-mile-long Tennessee River.
But we should never take our good fortune for granted. We just have to look about 100 miles south to get the point.
For decades, Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been warring over who can use how much water in two other major river basins that cross their borders. All three states have been in conflict over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin. Separately, Georgia and Alabama have been battling over the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basin. And don't forget that Georgia, with thirsty Atlanta, continues to threaten to try to "stick a straw" in the Tennessee River — even if it means trying to "take back" a strip of Southeast Tennessee that was by a mile and a fluke mistakenly surveyed in the early 1800s into Tennessee rather than Georgia.
But we digress. Today's moment of history — decided last week by the U.S. Supreme Court — concerns the water war between Georgia and Florida. Here is the quandary of what's become known as the tri-state water war:
* Georgia, as the upstream user of a handful of rivers that originate in North Georgia and eventually drain to both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, has been desperate to have enough water to allow for the continued growth of booming Atlanta, one of the few American cities without a river running through its core. Between Atlanta and Florida, three of those rivers flow on to cities like Columbus and irrigate the heavy farm areas in the Peach State's southwest corner.
* Florida, however, needs enough of that freshwater to reach the Apalachicola Bay to sustain its multimillion-dollar shellfish industry, which is under severe ecological stress from low river flows, saltwater intrusion, pollution and overharvest.
* Alabama is concerned that Atlanta's ever-increasing thirst for water will severely limit its own use of water for power generation, municipal supplies, fisheries and other current and future needs.
As with all water wars, there are winners and losers, conflicting needs and confusing evidence. The question the court was asked was whether it should issue an apportionment decree to force Georgia to cap the amount of water it uses — particularly agricultural irrigation water — so that more water might flow to the Sunshine State.
Atlanta, with a 2017 population of 6.5 million, is the third-largest metro region in the Southeast — the ninth-largest in the country. Georgia argued that Florida already gets most of the water from the Apalachicola River system, and that forcing Georgia to reduce its water use for crops would severely impact Georgia's economy with little to no benefit to Florida.
Don't tell that to fisheries and other users downstream. They, too, have millions of residents and livelihoods.
Florida's attorney, Gregory Garre, argued that Georgia's water consumption was a substantial factor in the oyster population's decimation: "The fact that there could be contributing causes [like overharvesting] doesn't defeat causation," Garre said.
To make a long story short, the Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously found for Georgia, dismissing the Florida lawsuit.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote for the court: "Florida has not shown that it is 'highly probable' that Georgia's alleged overconsumption played more than a trivial role in the collapse of Florida's oyster fisheries. Of course, the precise causes of the Bay's oyster collapse remain a subject of ongoing scientific debate. As judges, we lack the expertise to settle that debate and do not purport to do so here."
But she added: "Georgia has an obligation to make reasonable use of Basin waters in order to help conserve that increasingly scarce resource."
One can hope. But don't bet your water on it. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp called it "a vindication of years-long effort by multiple governors and attorneys general here in the Peach State to protect our citizens' water rights."
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported Thursday that even the high court's decision "is unlikely to be the end of the saga, since there are several separate cases pending in lower courts. Alabama sat out the Supreme Court case but was backing Florida, since both sit downstream from Georgia."
The ruling could prompt Congress to wade back into the water fight, though we should know not to put too much hope in their short-sighted fixes.
The important point is this: These kinds of resource wars will only grow larger and more painful.
Already a billion people, or one in seven on this marble we call Earth, lack access to safe drinking water, and more than 3.4 million people die each year from water, sanitation and hygiene-related causes.
Just since 2010, there have been more than 300 violent conflicts over water, according to worldwater.org.
In 2017, National Public Radio reported that 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced by some form of climate change, including extreme weather events. And in 2018, the World Bank estimated that three regions — Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia — will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050.
Water is the new gold, and we must never take it for granted.