Story By: Caroline Barr.
On a crisp, sunny morning in spring of 2013, Michael and David Hanson dipped their weathered canoes into the icy fresh waters of the northern most part of the Chattahoochee River. This act that once signified a relaxing day to be spent on the water was now the start of a different journey entirely.
Weighed down with packs of food, clothing and video equipment, Michael Hanson’s canoe, affectionately named Morpheous, was prepared for the month-long paddle down the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico.
The adventure paid off with an award-winning documentary film, “Who Owns Water?,” which tracks the expedition of the photographer and writer brothers as they paddle the Chattahoochee River in order to raise awareness and explore the effect of the depletion of the water shed resources.
“For centuries it has been a free for all water grab,” Michael said. This “water grab” is the main source of the river’s water supply depletion, rather than depletion caused by draught. This “water grab” is what has been called the Tri-State Water Wars for decades.
The Tri-State Water Wars, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, are continuing battles between Georgia, Alabama and Florida over the rights to use the water of the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basins that cross the states’ borders.
Each state has their own concerns and beliefs in their right to the water of these river basins, particularly the ‘Hooch, as the river is affectionately known. The Hanson brothers said they chose to paddle the entire length of the rivers so that “Who Owns Water?” could examine each state’s claims.
Alabama’s downstream claim to the water also lies in industrial use. Alabama farmers have also seen a major reduction in the water supply available for agriculture use.
The reduction of water supply is a product of restrictions being placed on the Flint River, which was named the No. 2 among “America’s Most Endangered Rivers 2013,” according to American Rivers. The restrictions, placed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, have been a main point of federal debate when it comes to Water War policy.
Alabama is in fact the only state in this fight without a comprehensive water management plan or policy. As of April 2014, Gov. Robert Bentley has released a proposed water policy for the state that could better the state’s chances against Georgia and Florida, according to the Alabama Water Agencies Working Group.
The ‘real fight’ rears its head once Florida comes into play. Also a downstream user, Florida needs enough freshwater from the rivers to reach Apalachicola Bay in order to sustain its major (and suffering) oyster industry.
As of Nov. 3, 2014, the Supreme Court has granted Florida’s motion to sue Georgia for “equitable apportionment” of the water in the ACF Basin, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. In other words, Florida wants federal allocation of who can use what water and how much water in order to secure their own portion.
These details of the debate and of federal policy have ruled the perception of the Water Wars, which is what inspired Michael and David to pursue their journey on the ‘Hooch. “We wanted to move at the river’s speed and meet its people,” Michael said.
Not only does the depletion of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers effect industry and agriculture, but it also affects the people who live on the river and depend on it for their livelihoods. Throughout their film, Michael and David come across local characters who fish the waters of the Hooch for their daily meal, who have grown up on the water and know nothing else.
Michael said of the relationship many people seem to view with the river closest to them as “our river,” a community. “They aren’t talking about Water War possession. It’s their home. It’s what they know. They have a physical relation, and they love it fiercely,” Michael said.
In “Who Owns Water?,” the Hansons never make any definitive judgments or suggestions as to which state has the most right to the water or what the government should or should not do in this situation – only that something has to be done.
The next step for the Hansons in ‘doing something’ was their WOW Georgia Film Tour, which took them to locations throughout the Southeast, including their birthplace Atlanta, Georgia, as well as Auburn, Alabama, and the Pacific Northwest, where they call now Seattle, Washington, home.
On a fall 2014 tour stop in Auburn they screened their film at Mama Mocha’s Coffee Emporium. The Hansons spoke on what has been done in other regions of the country that have suffered from similar water crises. “The Southwest is trying to privatize their water, but I don’t think that’s the way to go,” David said.
The Hansons did stress the importance of being proactive in water conservation. Water is a vital part of creating energy for people to use on a daily basis, so conserving water can consists of using energy efficient appliances and taking shorter showers.
Most states have several different citizen groups working to push forward policy reforms and creations, such as the Alabama Rivers Alliance, which had a major role in getting a water policy plan before Alabama Legislature. The Hansons mentioned a coalition group called SMART that consists of locals who live on the lower Flint River.
The Tri-State Water Wars are no where near being resolved, but action is being taken and more and more people are aware of the economic and environmental issues, in part, thanks to the Hansons’ “Who Own Water?.” The conversational tone and non-stylized cinematography of the film create an inviting and receptive vehicle to engage citizens.
Michael and David plan to pursue more water-related film projects in the Southeast. “There are a lot of stories here, stories that need to be shared and talked about,” Michael said.
Is This Waterproof?
Wind whips across the water, snapping Michael Hanson’s rain jacket against his arms and back as he methodically paddles down the Chattahoochee River – until he has to turn back to go get the camera.
Paddling, and almost entirely living on, the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers for a month appears challenging enough, but add in video equipment and that is a whole other ball game.
For Michael and David Hanson, filming their documentary “Who Owns Water?” was about more than exploring the conflict of the Tri-State Water Wars and drawing awareness to the environmental concerns of river depletion. It was also about figuring out the logistics of feature-length filmmaking, especially on a river.
“There were a lot of challenges: limited budget, canoe transport, being accurate to our aesthetic – not a loud, screaming environmental voice,” Michael Hanson said during a screening of the film at Mama Mocha’s Coffee Emporium in Auburn, Alabama. “Subtly is what says ‘authentic’ to us.”
The Hanson brother’s authenticity in consideration of the subject matter comes from a childhood growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, only miles from the ‘Hooch’s (as they lovingly refer to the river) muddy banks. Now, living in Seattle, Washington, pursuing photography and writing careers, the Hansons are still drawn to the stories of the South.
“We are giving the attention deserved by the South and its culture, as well as its conflicts,” Hanson said. “And we love rivers.”
Despite the logistical difficulties of filming on a river in wet and unstable conditions, Hanson is positive he and his brother, David, will continue to pursue water-related production projects. “[Water] is one of the biggest issues out there,” Hanson said.
He makes a strained face when recalling the extra energy and time spent paddling against the current in order to retrieve equipment set up on the bank to catch a wide angle shot or when remembering the GoPro camera lost to the rapids somewhere near Atlanta.
How did months on the Chattahooche effect on Michael and David’s relationship as brothers? “We had a ton of fun,” Hanson said. From playing baseball, including a professional stint as a minor league player for the Atlanta Braves for Michael, to a love of rivers, Michael and David seem to have always shared their passions.
“We just want to tell stories,” Hanson said. “And the river people’s intimate connection to their river is one of the best, in our opinion.”
Throughout the project and process of learning, one of the most surprising things Hanson learned was just how kind the people who lived and worked on the rivers are. “We never felt threatened or unwelcome, it was astonishing, actually. You could feel the community everywhere,” Hanson said.