University of South Carolina

Research suggests water wars brewing in Southeast

Water scarcity in the western United States has long been an issue of concern. Now, researchers studying freshwater sustainability in the U.S. have found the Southeast, with the exception of Florida, does not have enough water capacity to meet its future needs either.

“For more than a century, the Southwest has been the focus of long-running legal disputes over water resources, but the Southeast is now becoming a more contentious region for water use,” said Dr. Will Graf, a geographer in the University of South Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Graf said 25 years ago, journalist Marc Reisner wrote, “Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water,” which predicted that water resources would be unable to support the growing demand of cities, agriculture and industry in the Southwest. A paper co-authored by Graf featured in this month’s journal, “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” supports most of Reisner’s conclusions, using data and methods unavailable to Reisner in 1986.

Although the paper focuses on freshwater sustainability in the Southwest, Graf and co-authors Dr. Tushar Sinha, an engineer at North Carolina State University, and Dr. John Kominoski, an ecologist at the University of Georgia, said the findings have important implications for the Southeast as well.

“It turns out that the Southeast has a relatively small margin of water surplus for the future,” said Graf, USC’s Educational Foundation endowed professor and a leading authority on science and policy for public land and water.

Graf said the water resource picture in the Southeast is becoming similar to the Southwest, where water disputes have long been a prominent part of policy and resource management. In South Carolina, the Water Withdrawal and Permitting Act, which became law this year, and the agreement between North Carolina and South Carolina on managing their common rivers, such as the Catawba-Wateree system, demonstrate that water resources are gaining increased attention.

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