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Coming Water Wars, City-to-City, State-to-State

New Orleans  Everyone is watching the U.S. Supreme Court for key decisions this term around race, gay rights, and other issues, but their rejection of claims from Tarrant County, Texas where Fort Worth is located in the sprawling metroplex of north Texas, on any water from Oklahoma as part of the Red River Compact, may signal the coming American “water wars” that could dominate many areas in the 21st Century and literally make or break entire cities.   In this case an Oklahoma law prohibiting supplying water to out-of-state applicants was upheld, asserting a state’s rights to regulate its water over any rights claimed as part of a congressionally approved allocation system like the Red River Compact.  In the midst of a terrible drought now this is a blow to the almost 2 million users served by the Tarrant Regional Water District, and as significantly could lead to restrictions on future development in the area without access to sufficient water.

            Fort Worth is not alone.  Atlanta is already gulping for water having passed on a small investment that would have given it water rights many decades ago and now barred from access to these sources after years of losing litigation.  And, we’re not talking about Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas that have been tackling this problem for years with different levels of failure and success.  

            Earlier this year I read with great interest The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Austin-based, ex-Fortune writer, Charles Fishman.  I had found his book on Walmart many years ago helpful in organizing and had talked to him at the time. After visiting Atlanta in January I was surprised and intrigued to stumble on the water crisis in that city.   The book was helpful in getting my arms around the coming crises nationally here.

            Years ago, when we were successfully fighting the privatization of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board the companies all derided questions about whether or not private companies were seeking access to our great water surplus from the Mississippi River to export to other cities and states.  If we had a Governor not trying to run quixotically for President and a Mayor with enough vision to look past his next election, there would be real work in seeing in our broke-ass part of the country whether or not there might be a way to successfully commodify our surplus water capacity so that we might relieve the problems of cities within 8-9 hours drive like Atlanta and the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

            Make no mistake water, sewer, and all of attendant issues with both of them in our cities are going to be dominant issues in the coming decades.  No one can live without water and the notion that each area can bottle up the resource and restrict it just to the home folks, as the Supreme Court has just ruled, is a game changer.