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{Headlines} August 2014, Vol. 1 
A Deep Dive into Who Owns Water? 

By Sarah Stewart


Every good researcher knows if you want to understand the issue or problem, you go to the source to begin your inquiry. At the source you can see how things really work: the personalities, stakeholders, and players on the ground level who are directly impacted. At the source, you can start to find answers.  

Who owns water? This was the question that intrigued David and Michael Hanson and inspired their latest documentary investigating the “water war” between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida over the use of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin. In “Who Owns Water?” the brothers investigate the conflict, paddling the 493-mile length of the Chattahoochee River and talking to locals and stakeholders about the issue.

The Hansons are the keynote speakers for the 2014 SAIS Annual Conference, which will be held in Atlanta, October 18-20. Their film “Who Owns Water?” will also be screened at the conference. The documentary has received critical acclaim and was an official selection of Mountainfilm Telluride 2014 in May, and is now part of the Mountainfilm national tour. 

Graduates of Pace Academy in Atlanta, and Washington and Lee University in Virginia, the Hanson brothers have created numerous projects highlighting contemporary environmental, cultural, and social issues. David has developed stories for Cottage Living, Southern Living, Canoe & Kayak, and NPR. Meanwhile, Michael has photographed subjects and events in more than 27 countries, taught National Geographic Student Expeditions, and received numerous awards for his work, including Top Travel Photographer by Popular Photography. The two have partnered on a number of projects including the creation of an after-school photography program for Center Street Middle School in Birmingham, AL, a book on urban farming called Breaking Through Concrete, and their recent film. David is also currently three years into a four-year project with the non-profit WhyHunger and the United States Department of Agriculture to gather stories and images from food justice initiatives throughout the United States.

From Wikipedia

The Chattahoochee is familiar ground for the Hanson brothers. They grew up in Atlanta using its water daily for typical household and outdoor needs. They enjoyed hiking and family picnics on the river’s banks, as well as canoeing or other recreational activities. But they never considered what the river meant as a resource to themselves or others. Avid outdoorsmen, the brothers were inspired to pursue “Who Owns Water” after paddling the Chattahoochee in 2009, and witnessing first-hand the endangered watersheds in south Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. They secured two Patagonia Environmental Grants and a MountainFilm Commitment Grant to fund the film, and made the journey in March 2013.  

The Dispute
The dispute between the states is driven by the regulation of how much water flows from Lake Lanier downstream, especially during seasons of drought. Sixty years ago, leaders in the Atlanta area couldn’t fathom that water would ever be something they would need to fight over. When the U.S. Corps of Engineers proposed the Buford Dam in the late 1940's and early 1950's as a possible future water source, then mayor William Hartsfield replied, “Certainly a city [Atlanta] which is only one hundred miles below one of the greatest rainfall areas in the nation will never find itself in the position of a city like Los Angeles” (please see the article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution from 2009 detailing the controversial history of the Buford Dam and Mayor Hartsfield's "uncharacteristic miscalulation" from 1948). Today, the Atlanta metro area is home to 5.5 million people who rely on Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee for their water. Its watershed is the smallest of any major metro area in the country. 

"In 1989, the U.S. Corps of Engineers released a report that some of the water that was being used for hydroelectric power should, instead be used to supply Atlanta with water" (please see the entry on Wikipedia on the Tri-state water dispute for a fuller description and for the citation of source material for this article). However, reducing the flow of water from Lake Lanier harms Florida and Alabama’s ecosystems and endangered aquatic species. Alabama and Florida filed lawsuits against the Corps of Engineers and Georgia, saying the Corps favored Georgia’s interests and had ignored the environmental implications of such a reduction based on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. The lawsuits between the states and the U.S. Corps have continued over the last 20-plus years, with only limited resolutions, and an inability for all to agree on minimum flow requirements, consumptions caps, and general operation standards. In some quarters, the rhetoric has turned vitriolic: "Let Atlanta stop watering their grass a little bit, don't give their dogs a five-gallon bucket of water that's gonna (sic) sit there and let mosquitos nest in. Give them a little bowl," a resident of Apalachicola Bay was quoted as saying last August in the International Business Times.

While the states have been at an impasse, a group representing a wide range of interests in the water dispute formed The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Stakeholders Coalition (ACFS) in 2009 with the intent of presenting the states with sustainable water plans. The ACF Stakeholders includes more than 50 members representing fishing, navigation, hydroelectric power, and community interests from all three states. They’ve raised more than $1.5 million to draft a solution, which they have been working on with Georgia Institute of Technology’s Georgia Water Resources Institute. They are on track to complete and publish the plan this fall 2014. The Hanson brothers believe the group’s report could be the answer the states have been looking for. In addition, the U.S. Corps of Engineers is also in the midst of creating new water-control manuals that will govern how much water is released downstream. The manuals are expected to be ready by 2015.

Lessons Learned
There many lessons educators can learn from “Who Owns Water?” At the center of the film is the need for communities to create sustainable environments, what’s at risk if those environments cannot be created, and that the only way to accomplish this goal is to work together. In the film, David says, “Every ounce conserved at the headwaters is life or death down stream.” In the water wars, each community had a history with the river, how they used the water, and what it meant to them. For Atlanta residents it was precious drinking water; for farmers in south Georgia and Alabama it was water for crops or industrial uses. For fishermen in Florida, the water is required to sustain the marine life in the Apalachicola Bay, and its absence has turned the area into a federal fishery disaster. There is too much at stake for any one party to disregard the needs of the other, and in the end, each is inevitably connected. Also, the bright light in this story comes from outside the system. Not from the various politicians, governments, or federal entities in charge, but from a group of businesses and non profits who rely on the water and agree to partner in drafting a solution. The group demonstrates those critical skills of communication, critical thinking, and collaboration that education gurus such as Sir Ken Robinson and Dr. Tony Wagner regularly champion. 

Like those affected by the water dispute, education is also facing a crisis in our country. The skills our children will require to succeed in the world have changed and will continue to change. Meanwhile they are no longer competing with their neighbors, but with graduates and workers from around the world. The efforts of our public education system to improve with its increased focus on high stakes testing and the debated move to common core curriculum are inept if not detrimental to student outcomes. Collaboration across different groups can be the key to improving K-12 education. Independent schools are uniquely positioned to demonstrate alternatives, and affect change, and one way we can begin to do this is by forming creative partnerships and collaborations with a range of sources from higher education, to public and charter schools, to non-profits and businesses. Independent schools can be leaders in creating better outcomes for all students, but it is upon us to make the first move.  

To hear more from the Hanson brothers and a host of other experts on the best practices and latest trends in independent school education, register for the SAIS Annual Conference. To continue the conversation on Twitter: @SAISnews, #saisac.


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