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Keeping the lawyers busy: Battles over water escalating

Were I an aspiring law school student, I think I would opt to specialize in environmental law and water rights. It looks as if there’s going to be enough litigation in those areas to support a lot of lawyers in fine style for a long while.

Most people don’t give water much thought. We turn on the tap or crank up the irrigation pump, and the water flows.

But for some areas of the Southeast this past summer, that wasn’t the case, thanks to a multi-year drought that depleted lakes and reservoirs and had states suing each other over access to water.

Here in the Mid-South, a high profile lawsuit centers on the state of Mississippi’s claim that the city of Memphis is stealing water from an across-the-state-line Mississippi aquifer. Mississippi wants $1 billion as payment for the estimated 372 million gallons Memphis has pumped since 1965.

A federal judge tossed out the case, citing lack of jurisdiction. Mississippi says it will go to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and, if necessary, the U.S. Supreme Court. Memphis has already racked up $1 million in legal costs, Mississippi, $1.2 million, and the meter keeps running.

About the same time, the state of Georgia lost a major lawsuit by Florida and Alabama over rights to water from Lake Lanier. The three states have been keeping lawyers busy arguing over the water for more than 20 years, but last year’s record drought only exacerbated the matter. This spat, too, may wind up at the Supreme Court.

In a desperate-times-demand-desperate-measures move, two Georgia legislators introduced a measure that would move the state’s northwest boundary a mile north so part of the Tennessee River would then be inside Georgia, allowing the state to access the water. Tennessee and North Carolina are expected to object to the boundary jiggering and water commandeering — more court action.

Farther north, Canada is increasingly worried that a water-thirsty U.S. may take so much water from Lake Michigan that it will adversely impact Canada’s water supplies. In the arid western states of the U.S., water battles have been legion as metropolitan populations have zoomed. Many farmers are finding it more profitable to sell their water rights than to grow crops.

Some politicians — amid strenuous objections — are calling for a national water rights policy that would put the federal government in charge of the Great Lakes and other major water sources.

A new source of contention over water has come with the boom in ethanol production; lawsuits are proliferating as opponents decry water usage by ethanol plants that can be as much as 2 million gallons per day.

Privatization of water is another worry. Enron (remember them?) had visions of becoming a powerhouse in the water business, just as it was in energy. Enron crashed, but other companies are eagerly looking at ways to profit from water.

These are just a smattering of water issues in the U.S. that are keeping litigators hopping.

“The wars of the next century will be about water.” — Ismail Serageldin, former vice president, The World Bank, 1999.

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