Southern Regional Water Program

Research, Extension & Education Water Quality Programs through the Land Grant University System

Program Area: Water Policy and Economics

waterquantity1.gifFor most Americans, the lack of good quality water has never been a concern. However with the beginning of the 21st century, many U.S. communities are facing diminishing water supplies and a growing competition for the resource. Many lakes and reservoirs throughout the country are at historically low levels. Causes for diminishing water supplies are varied.

Socio-geographic changes in U.S. population are placing increased demands on water resources. Population growth is occurring where municipal and industrial demands are already great. Much of the increased demand is occurring in arid regions where water is always scarce. Water resources become even less dependable in years of drought. As water bodies become depleted, water quality decreases from higher concentrations of chemical, biological, and physical contaminants. Numbers of intra and inter-state controversies are emerging as a result of water shortages.

One such controversy is the so called "tri-state water war", between Georgia, Alabama and Florida. The City of Atlanta, after assessing its projected population growth and future water needs, sought a permit from the Corps of Engineers to create reservoirs on the Chattahoochee, Flint, and Coosa Rivers that would retain an additional 529 million gallons of water a day to be stored in Lake Sidney Lanier, Atlanta's major source of drinking water. Atlanta's long-term plan included an increase in withdrawals of 50% from the Chattahoochee and Flint by the year 2010.

This proposal and announcement by the Corps set off a dispute between Georgia and its downstream neighbors, Alabama and Florida. Alabama viewed the plan as a threat to its own water supply, possibly stunting industrial and population growth in the state and resulting in degraded water quality due to the decrease in water flow. Alabama argued that the downstream flow already brings with it Atlanta's pollution and that a decrease in the water flow would mean more pollutants that would not get diluted. Florida joined the dispute contending that the plan to siphon off more water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers would deplete the flow into Florida's Apalachicola Bay and would critically injure the state's $70 million oyster industry.

Similar debates are ongoing farther west. All parties are continually challenging Pecos River and Rio Grande compacts between New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. Resolutions to the problems of water supply through equitable allocation are critical to the sustainability of our communities throughout the country.

There is no real grasp of how much or how little water is available. And, by nature, the numbers would keep changing at any rate, contingent on dry or wet years. This is why most states have water rights policies established. The administrative principles of the these water rights vary from state to state, but essentially determine who has the right, and to how much, in times of shortages.

Riparian Rights Doctrine

waterquantity2.gifA riparian landowner has the right to use a portion of available water (stream or lake) for domestic use and irrigation. Water for irrigation and other commercial purposes must be "reasonable with respect to the requirements of all other riparian owners. This doctrine can also be applied to groundwater. Riparian rights are generally followed in Eastern states, and were influenced by British Common Law. Needs of other riparian owners must be taken into account. "Reasonable" is defined on a case-by-case basis in court. In times of drought, riparian owners suffer equally, theoretically.

Originally, the riparian doctrine did not allow riparian owners to sell water to non-riparian landowners. As populations have increased, however, variations have been adopted to overcome these and other obstacles.

Appropriation Doctrine

Using the policy of Prior Appropriation, the first to appropriate water for a beneficial use has the right to water for that use prior to any other user. Riparian land does not have to be owned to obtain water rights. Appropriation rights origins are based in Spanish and Native American practices of administering water (see New Mexico water quantity and policy theme). Accordingly, many Western states have adopted this method of water allocation. In practice the doctrine is simply "first in time, first in right."

Consistent with this "first in time..." policy, in times of drought, more senior water rights holders can use water while junior water rights owners go without. It should be noted that both doctrines primarily focus on water quantity and the laws are unclear about water quality.

In the 13 states comprising US Environmental Protection Agency Regions 4 & 6, many different systems of water rights administration are used. The following chart outlines the various doctrines, how disputes are resolved, regulatory agencies, and more.

States Water Rights Doctrine Permit Req. Buy/Sell Privs. Dispute Settle. Compacts Leg. Statutes Agency Respons- ibility
Alabama Riparian No No Gen Court 0 None Office Water Resources
Arkansas Riparian No Yes Gen Court 0 None None
Florida Statute Yes No Agency 0 None Districts
Georgia Riparian Yes Yes Gen Court 0 None Dept. of NR
Kentucky Riparian Yes No GC/Agency 2 None Div. Water
Louisiana Riparian No Yes Gen Court 2 None None
Mississippi Permit Yes No Agency 0 None Dept. of NR
New Mexico Appropriation Yes Yes Gen Court 8 Yes State Eng.
North Carolina Riparian Yes Yes Gen Court 3 None Div. Water
Oklahoma Appropriation Yes No GC/Agency 3 Yes W. Res. Board
South Carolina Riparian Yes No Gen Court 0 Yes W. Res. Com.
Tennessee Riparian No Yes Gen Court 2 Yes Dept. H&E
Texas Appropriation Yes Yes GC/Agency 5 Yes St. Water Com.



Enhanced regional and multi-agency collaboration, and improved science-based information for public policy makers, citizens, and organizations.

For information on additional Land Grant University programs and research in Southern Region states addressing water policy and economics, return to the home page, select a state and choose from Target Themes.

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