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The Water Wars that Defined the American West Are Heading East

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 12/2/2019 Jesse Newman
a man standing on a dirt track © Jesse Newman/The Wall Street Journal

CAMILLA, Ga.—Water stress, a hallmark of the American West, is spreading east.

The shift is evident on Casey Cox’s family farm in Georgia’s agricultural heartland, where she turned on five giant rotating sprinklers to see her sweet corn through weeks of hot, dry weather last spring.

“If we hadn’t had irrigation, our crop would have burned up completely,” said Ms. Cox, who with her father also produces soybeans, peanuts and timber on 2,400 acres.

More water to save Ms. Cox’s crops, though, often means less for neighbors to the south such as Rickey Banks. He gave up his life as a Florida oysterman when his fishery, which depends on water from the same river basin as Ms. Cox’s farm, collapsed during a drought.

Increasing competition for water is playing out across the eastern U.S., a region more commonly associated with floods and hurricanes and one that was mostly a stranger, until recently, to the type of bitter interstate water dispute long seen in the West.

Eastern farmers’ rising thirst for water, together with urban growth and climate change, now is taxing water supplies and fueling legal fights that pit states against each other. The shift has exposed the region to changes in water supply occurring globally as swelling populations, surging industrial demand and warmer temperatures turn a resource seen as a natural right into a contested one.

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In the U.S., burgeoning coastal populations have lowered water tables and dried up streams in Long Island, N.Y. Near Tampa, Fla., groundwater pumping has drawn saltwater into aquifers, drained lakes and triggered sinkholes. Decades of pumping by farmers and others have led to sharp declines in critical aquifers that flank the lower Mississippi River.

“What keeps me awake at night is not western water issues—it’s the East,” said Lara Fowler, an attorney and professor of water law and policy at Pennsylvania State University.

In 2013, Florida and Georgia’s long-running conflict over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin landed before the U.S. Supreme Court, the sole arbiter of interstate water disputes.

The legal battle inched forward in early November when a “special master” appointed by the high court, the second one the dispute has had, heard arguments from the states’ attorneys in a courtroom in Albuquerque, N.M. Special masters are servants of the Supreme Court, conducting hearings, building a record and issuing a report for justices to consider in cases that don’t move through lower courts. Ultimately, the special master will likely say which party should prevail and why.

One striking marker of expanding stress is the 100th meridian, a divide between water-rich and water-poor areas drawn nearly a century and a half ago by geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell. According to a team of scientists including those at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the boundary—severing states from North Dakota to Texas—has shifted about 140 miles eastward since 1979 because of warmer temperatures or reduced rainfall. The scientists predict the West’s drier climate will continue to push eastward and pressure water supplies for farms and cities alike.

The threat is a familiar one for Mr. Banks in Florida, who in 2012 watched the oyster fishery that had sustained his family for decades fade amid a withering drought.

Florida blames Georgia farmers such as the Coxes, along with metropolitan Atlanta’s thirst, for the loss of such livelihoods. It says the explosion of irrigated agriculture in southern Georgia and Atlanta’s dramatic growth have drained too much water from the states’ shared river system, shrinking flows to Florida’s Apalachicola Bay.

The reduction, Florida argues, caused salinity to spike in the bay, fueling an invasion of oyster-eating predators such as conchs and sponges. Only a handful of oystermen ply the bay’s waters today, down from hundreds a decade ago. Local restaurants that once boasted their “seafood slept in the bay last night” now import oysters from Texas or Louisiana.

Mr. Banks left Florida in search of carpentry work, eventually returning to launch a charter service that takes guests fishing and hunting for wild boars and alligators.

“Oystering was a heritage, not only a job,” said Mr. Banks, 49, who began working on his father’s oyster boat at the age of five.

Irrigated acreage in Georgia increased 15-fold from 1960 to 2015, according to U.S. Geological Survey data, as farmers sought to boost the predictability of their harvests. Much of the increase is along lower portion of the Flint River, which rises near Atlanta and runs south through some of Georgia’s most productive farmland.

Crop yields in the state have soared. President Jimmy Carter, who ran his family peanut farm before he ran the country, once honored Georgia farmers who harvested a ton of peanuts per acre. Their descendants can raise triple that. So critical is irrigation, farmers say, that most bankers won’t finance their operations without a system installed.

At peak times in the growing season, farmers in the lower Flint River basin pull hundreds of millions of gallons of water a day from an aquifer called the Floridan that helps feed the river through fissures in the limestone below ground. Gordon Rogers, executive director of an advocacy group called the Flint Riverkeeper, says that during brief periods, the farmers’ water draw equals that of metropolitan Tokyo.

The area around the Cox farm, in the southwest corner of the state, bordered by Alabama and Florida, is blessed with rain, an average of 52 inches a year. Winter and early spring are particularly wet in this area.

For a farmer, however, timing is everything. Two or three weeks without rain during critical phases of crop development can sharply reduce the yield as well as the quality of a crop such as sweet corn.

In a wet year, rainfall quickly replenishes the Floridan aquifer. But as irrigation wells have multiplied, far less water has flowed from Georgia into Florida during droughts. In 2012, water in the Flint dropped dramatically. Creeks that flow into it, with names from the region’s Native American heritage—Ichawaynochaway, Kinchafoonee and Muckalee—almost or entirely dried up.

Beyond Georgia, farmers across the eastern U.S. have steadily embraced irrigation, outfitting fields with rotating sprinklers to precisely control when their crops get water and how much. Irrigated acreage quadrupled in Tennessee and more than doubled in Indiana, Delaware and South Carolina between 1997 and 2017, according to government data.

Irrigation’s eastern push lies at the heart of Florida v. Georgia, one of three interstate water disputes pending before the Supreme Court. Western states have sent such disputes to the high court for more than a century. Now eastern states are the combatants in two of the three water cases before the court.

Florida seeks to limit Georgia’s water use. In 2015, Florida’s attorneys subpoenaed the Cox farm, arriving during the fall harvest to collect a decade’s worth of irrigation records and more. The two states have submitted more than seven million pages of documents, said a person familiar with the case.

The special master appointed by the court recommended the Supreme Court deny Florida’s request for a cap on Georgia’s water use, saying he wasn’t certain that a cap would result in enough additional water at the right times to benefit Florida.

That is because of the central role of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages dams and reservoirs in the region and controls when and how much water is released. Since it isn’t a party to the case, the Corps wouldn’t be bound by any court order, the special master said. The recommendation echoed Georgia’s argument, which also calls Florida’s problems largely self-inflicted.

After a hearing before the Supreme Court last year, the Justices decided 5-4 to reject the special master’s proposal. They named a second special master.

At her farm near Camilla, Ms. Cox, 28, called irrigation the single most effective risk-management tool a farmer can have and said irrigation technology has grown more efficient over time. “If you took it away from us, we would not be able to farm,” she said, as she checked one of her family’s nine center-pivot sprinklers, stretched like a winged bird over a field of sweet corn.

Every few minutes, her phone dinged with a message from the center-pivot, telling her when it had turned on or off or had changed direction. “My pivot will not stop texting me,” she said.

En route to another field, Ms. Cox wound past pine-tree plantations and live oaks draped in Spanish moss, ticking off achievements irrigation made possible. Georgia produces more peanuts than any other state. A predictable water source means its farmers are reliable suppliers to candy companies such as Hershey Co. and to peanut-butter makers like J.M. Smucker Co.

Irrigation has also enabled farmers to plant higher-value but thirsty vegetable crops that can boost profits, and helps produce robust grain crops to supply chicken producers such as Tyson Foods Inc. Along with related businesses, agriculture contributed $16.7 billion to southwest Georgia’s economy in a recent year, according to the University of Georgia.

“Irrigation is the linchpin of our economy,” said Glenn Cox, Casey’s father, who is 64.

Throughout the East, newer industrial activities such as oil-field hydraulic fracturing also are demanding more water. “Out West, those states were water-stressed before any Europeans showed up,” said Matthew Draper, an attorney who specializes in transboundary water disputes. “Out East, we’re just now starting to bump up against that limit where someone using water means someone else is going to go without.”

The Coxes said the multiyear drought in California prompted vegetable growers there to invest in farmland in southern Georgia and northern Florida. Bo Abrams, a professor of water law at Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando, predicts that over time, water shortages will drive ranching and field-crop production eastward from Arizona and the Great Plains.

At the same time, in Georgia, “What we’re seeing is periods of drier dries and wetter wets,” said Murray Campbell, a farmer who grows cotton and peanuts 20 miles east of the Coxes.

That trend is likely to continue, according to the latest U.S. National Climate Assessment, a legally mandated report spearheaded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. More frequent and severe droughts in places such as the Southeast could increase conflicts over water, experts say, even as periods of heavy precipitation like those that brought flooding to the Midwest last spring occur more often. Flooding drowns fields in too much water, and drought conditions still can develop between fewer, larger storms.

More states in the East are placing first-ever restrictions on permits for water use, said Barton “Buzz” Thompson, a professor of natural-resources law at Stanford University, who served as special master in a decadelong fight between Montana and Wyoming over Yellowstone River water.

Some water experts say eastern states are still unprepared for scarcity, armed with a patchwork of regulations and laws that assume water will remain plentiful. Unlike in the West, where most major river basins are governed by interstate compacts, only a few such agreements exist in the East.

In Georgia, a moratorium on new drilling into parts of the Floridan aquifer has slowed expansion of irrigated farmland in the Flint River basin for now. Farmers are allowed to drill into deeper aquifers, although that is more costly.

Uncertainty about the Supreme Court case has introduced new risks. Restrictions on agricultural water use could make a land purchase seem foolish, said Mr. Campbell, the cotton and peanut farmer. “That’s the kind of thing guys lay awake at night thinking about—what if I can’t irrigate that land?” he said.

“We see the conflicts and realize you’ve got to do something,” Mr. Campbell said. “But it would be difficult for us to turn the water off.”

Write to Jesse Newman at jesse.newman@wsj.com

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