Out on Tybee Island, there’s a well that goes down a half mile underneath the ground. The well isn’t done yet. It’s still an experiment. But I can’t even imagine that kind of depth.

What has caused such an amazing, multi-million-dollar subterranean project? Water, pure and simple. (Well, not so pure that far down. It has to be treated.) The State of Georgia is looking for deep drinking water on Tybee Island because the beachfront community is running up against its pumping limits from a shallower water source, the Floridan Aquifer.

It’s a dilemma that vexes communities and industries all up and down the Georgia coast. And University of Colorado law professor William Boyd talks about that struggle in a lecture that I present to you here in this podcast.

“The groundwater crisis in South Georgia, like so many other places around the world, is really a failure of regulation, it’s a failure of governance,” Boyd says. “But mostly, it’s a failure of politics, it’s a failure to recognize collectively that this is a public, shared, common-pool resource that needs to be approached with care.”

Boyd examines the fight over water by looking at one of the resource’s biggest users. It also happens to be a user that came to Georgia’s rescue when the cotton industry collapsed with the boll weevil infestation of the 1920’s. That would be the pulp and paper industry, still a big driver of our area’s economy, both through the paper-making process itself and the wood forest industry all around us. By the end of the 20th Century, the South accounted for about three-fourths of wood production and more than half of the paper and paper board production in this country.

“As the global leader in the production of pulp and paper, based on the intensive cultivation of timber, the Southern pulp and paper industry clearly represented one of the region’s most impressive industrial success stories,” Boyd says.

And paper-making is a very water-intensive process. Paper basically starts out as a giant soup of wood.

“Water is arguably the most important of all the inputs in making paper because it has no substitute,” he says. “And in a somewhat contradictory way, it has been one of the most poorly managed resources used by the pulp and paper industry.”

Total water pumping in Chatham County peaked in 1988 at around 88 million gallons a day. That includes municipal and industrial users. Thanks to conservation efforts, that was down to about 55 million gallons a day in 2010. But the cumulative effect of all this pumping has been to suck salty ocean water into the Floridan Aquifer. And that threatens our supply. Hence, the ongoing fight.

Boyd goes into the history of this push-and-pull and maintains an even hand in his narrative. If you drink water on Georgia’s coast, you have to listen to this presentation, made at the “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium organized by the Ossabaw Island Foundation back in February. This is the ninth of ten podcasts that I will be producing from this remarkable gathering of minds, all focused on the intersection of our landscape and history.

“We take [water] for granted,” he says. “It’s invisibility begets neglect, misuse and waste. But it is a fragile resource and it’s one that scientists have helped us learn how to see.”

Other lectures from the symposium may be heard by clicking on this link.