>By Mitch Reid, Program Director, Alabama Rivers Alliance
Water is again causing conflict in Dixie. Just days after the Supreme Court agreed that Florida had a case against Georgia over its use of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, Georgia turned around and sued the Corps of Engineers for not giving it more water from the Coosa. This suit was filed literally minutes after the Corps released its final environmental impact assessment for the long-delayed water control manual for the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River system.
In its complaint, Georgia argues, the Army Corps “refusal to properly address current and future water supply needs hampers the State of Georgia’s ability to properly manage its valuable water resources and potentially puts the health, safety and welfare of Georgia’s citizens at risk.” Both Florida and Georgia are taking bold legal actions to ensure that their respective state water plans are respected and that their states are allowed sufficient water to carry them out.
Meanwhile, Alabamians are still waiting to see if our state can get a plan-to-plan off the ground for our water.
It is time to move Alabama’s water plan forward. Over the last three years there has been a lot of behind-the scenes work, but the state has yet to bring its water stakeholders to the table. To his credit, Governor Bentley has shown leadership in getting us this far. In 2012, Governor Bentley directed the state agencies with responsibility over water management to develop recommendations for a comprehensive water management plan.
In 2013, these agencies, now known as the Alabama Water Agencies Working Group, submitted a detailed report that explored water management issues in Alabama and recommended a conceptual path toward a water plan. What they did not, or could not, provide was an actual plan. The governor has now directed the working group to hone its recommendations and present more details of how the state can move forward, including a plan for engaging stakeholders in the process, before the end of the year. With these efforts, perhaps Alabama’s water planning effort is poised to move with some steam into 2015.
This effort comes at a critical time in Alabama where many long-term issues are condensing into real challenges for our water resources. This return to the courtroom serves only to remind us of issues that have been escalating for decades. Since the 1980’s, recurring droughts and ever-increasing growth have created tensions between water users and intensified competition with neighboring states over shared resources.
Added to this is a recently increasing debate within the farming community over how to address the fact that access to water is becoming a limiting factor in Alabama’s farmers’ ability to compete in a water-dependent industry. Not surprisingly, these stresses all have impacts on our river ecosystems as water use rises and its users look for new supply options.
With the questions of access comes the issue of the State’s responsibility to protect the flow of the rivers for both their users and their ecosystems. A river without flow is no river at all. Alabama does not have a well-developed stream flow policy and this will need to be addressed as part of the State’s water planning efforts.
Through the years, Alabama Rivers Alliance has followed these developments closely; working openly with stakeholders and agency officials to communicate legislators’ and agencies’ efforts to stakeholders and to provide forums for the working group to hear from a variety of stakeholders across Alabama. In a recent symposium held at Birmingham-Southern College, members of the working group heard from a blue ribbon panel of top experts from across the nation discussing the state of the art of water planning. The common theme was that robust stakeholder input into planning is critical to sustainable management of a state’s water resources.
While it may be tempting for our state to shift from planning to litigation, we urge our state leaders to stay the course. This recent law suit reinforces the need for a water plan for Alabama. However, our window of opportunity to get this right is quickly closing. In Florida’s suit, the Supreme Court has appointed a “Special Master” to determine an “equitable apportionment” of water among the states. Alabama’s lack of a plan has placed us at a severe disadvantage that will only get worse if we don’t get our house in order.
Currently, the working group is tasked to provide a plan for implementing its 2013 recommendations to Governor Bentley by December 1, 2014. Moving forward, the State must bring the stakeholders to the table and move, with all deliberate haste, to develop a plan for managing Alabama’s water. Only with a plan in place that addresses the needs of both our rivers and the stakeholders that rely on their water can Alabama effectively engage in the debate over sharing these limited resources among Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.
We can no longer afford for politics to hinder efforts to move Alabama forward. The Alabama Rivers Alliance encourages all citizens to pay attention and speak up in this process to ensure that their interests are represented. The Alabama Rivers Alliance is committed to continued efforts to ensure that there is a strong voice for protecting the rivers of Alabama as the state develops a water plan.
About the Alabama Rivers Alliance
The Alabama Rivers Alliance is Alabama’s statewide, nonprofit, water protection organization.
More info at www.alabamarivers.org.
About Mitch Reid
Mitch manages the Alabama Rivers Alliance programs, working with both the state and federal governments towards real and lasting protection of our rivers.