Just Add Water

Why do Atlantans not know that there are massive river
systems throughout the state, that a major river runs through the city, that the city dumps all these effluents into it?

—Marc Miller, Professor of Law, and Ralph W. Bilby Visiting Professor,
University of Arizona Rogers College of Law

Vol. 8 No. 5
April/May 2006

Return to Contents

Just Add Water
An interdisciplinary experiment

Reading and Resources

"Why do Atlantans not know that there are massive river
systems throughout the state, that a major river runs through the city, that the city dumps all these effluents into it?"

"When the impervious [surface] area rises to 30 percent,
the stream habitat becomes completely degraded. On campus,
we have greater than 50 percent impervious area."

Safe Access
A social watershed

Water as Sacred
Jewish and Christian traditions

The Rarest Element
Despite centuries of research, mysteries of water remain


Jack Zupko: I want to ask first about your interdisciplinary perspective on water as a legal scholar.

Marc Miller:
I teach environmental law but really focus on lands and resource issues—public lands, wildlife, biodiversity, regulation. What I found in class after class is that water kept bubbling up as either a constraint that you ignored at your peril or as the ultimate physical issue around which the theoretical issues of public choice, common-pool resources, and so forth would turn. At some moment, the students would say, Wait a minute, we’re really thinking here about the way the natural and human systems work, about ecosystems as well as those things that reside in them. The role of water was the source of that moment of recognition.

In my public lands course, water was typically the ultimate subject, which flowed—pardon the pun—in the background as we talked about parks and wilderness, the history of public lands, and land distribution. But the last subject was water, because it led students to go back and test their conceptions of resource values—recreation, use, commercial production. Ultimately, it’s not about laws and regulations, but the values that we humans want to impose on the land that will determine the fate of that land—and ultimately our own fate. Looking at water, for example, reminded people that wilderness is what we want it to be. Whether we want wilderness at all is a reflection of value.

JAZ: Where are we headed with regard to water policy and laws in the U.S.?

MM: Water law is going to go through a fundamental transformation, and people now in both the eastern and western U.S. are in active and sustained debates over how that transformation will occur—with planning and foresight, or through crises and adaptation? This goes to water supplies, uses, and quality. Most consumers in this country continue to get their water essentially cost-free. They simply pay a utility cost for administration or delivery. But there is no resource value for the underlying good. Water is likely to become more central as a political issue and at the same time to be treated more like a commodity.

JAZ: Where do we need to be in order to change our thinking about water?

MM: The law has to change, but it could change in lots of different ways. The water laws of both the east and west are set up with a particular set of goals: development, growth, use. The usage rules are somewhat different according to whether there’s a constant, steady supply or a limited amount that has to be prioritized. But the laws were set up to encourage what we might now think of as wasteful or very unwise uses, or uses that don’t take account of values that are not part of market systems. But there’s a revolution coming. As development continues, urban areas will assert their raw political muscle over rural uses, agricultural uses, and environmental constraints. Or everything will turn into a much more market-oriented regime, taking away the dominant set of incentives toward growth and development that existed in the past and allowing various users to compete.

JAZ: You’ve been living in Arizona for several months. How do you think differently about water now?

MM: You can’t live in Tucson and not see a front-page story on water if not every day then every other or third day. One of the things that’s baffled me about Georgia is why water isn’t part of what you hear about all the time. Yes, there are occasional stories about the tri-state water wars, but more generally there are very few water stories in the AJC. Why do Atlantans not know that there are massive river systems throughout the state, that a major river runs through the city, that the city dumps effluents into it? Why does the city not know where its water supply comes from? Why isn’t the Chattahoochee central to the mental image of Atlantans about Atlanta? Why hasn’t the state of Georgia treated its river systems and all the recreational, aesthetic, and environmental amenity values they provide as a defining element of the state? Why doesn’t water become part of the debate in the way that, for example, transportation and air quality have increasingly become part of public discourse?

At Emory there is a wonderful and emerging conversation about sustainability. Dozens and dozens of people have been organizing around a set of ideas. At Arizona, there must be—I haven’t counted them—eight or ten different water science and policy centers with different funding sources. It’s just a bigger chunk of the scholarly and policy world.