NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Water Challenges Emerge in the East

March 3, 2003

Fighting over water rights has long been a characteristic of arid western states. But now eastern states, as well, are becoming increasingly occupied with legal challenges involving water claims -- prompted, in part, by serious drought conditions in recent years.

Rivers like the Savannah, the Pee Dee, the Roanoak, the Chattahoochee and the Potomac are at the heart of water challenges among the states.

There are few legal precedents to guide eastern courts in deciding water disputes because water rights have seldom been at issue in the usually water-abundant East.

Take the controversy involving the Potomac's waters:

  • In 1632, King Charles I granted Maryland the right to the Potomac "from shore to shore."
  • Only now is Virginia disputing Maryland's centuries-old right to all the Potomac's waters -- by demanding what it claims is its fair share.
  • Utilities on both sides of the Potomac are sucking up 19 percent more water than they did 10 years ago to serve customers in the two states and Washington, D.C.
  • The current controversy arose when Maryland rejected a 1996 request by Virginia to build an additional water withdrawal pipe.

The matter is now under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court will also have jurisdiction over disputes in other states, which have not made much progress in reaching accords.

Perhaps the most rancorous dispute pits Georgia, Florida and Alabama against one another over the division of Chattahoochee River waters. The fight has spilled into Tennessee and South Carolina -- because Atlanta has made known its interest in drawing water claimed by those states from the Tennessee and Savannah rivers and transferring it to the Chattahoochee basin for its own use.

Source: Douglas Jehl, "A New Frontier in Water Wars Emerges in East," New York Times, March 3, 2003.


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