Water: The Resource We Can’t Take For Granted

Posted on July 13, 2011

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Alabama is a water-rich state. Alabama has 77,000 miles of rivers and stream and ranks sixth in the nation for the most continuously-flowing streams. Our waters sustain us physically, recreationally and economically.

Black Warrior River, Manderson Landing, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Lake Lurleen, near Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Alabama also has 47 reservoirs larger than 500 acres that cover 551,220 acres and 23 Alabama State Public Fishing Lakes.

The waters of Alabama provide a major economic boost to the people of Alabama. Example: Alabama supports 11 million angler fishing days with expenditures of three-quarters of a billion dollars. And that data is from 2002 or earlier. Imagine the economic impact of sport-fishing today.

But water quantity does not automatically mean there is a surplus of water that can be wasted or polluted.

“Alabama is one of the only states in the South that does not have a comprehensive statewide water resources management plan.” (News Release, Alabama Rivers Alliance, July 13, 2011).

Today, the Alabama Rivers Alliance and the Southern Environmental Law Center released their updated Alabama Water Agenda. The Agenda is a guide for achieving healthy waters in Alabama and serves as a resource for elected officials, policymakers, and citizens in developing a sustainable water policy for the state of Alabama. The full report (in PDF) is available for download here.

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Spring Creek, Colbert County, Tennessee River Watershed

The presence of lots of water says nothing about the quality of water. Likewise, the presence of lots of water can lead to irresponsible uses which, ultimately, can lead to water shortages in certain areas, as well as environmental contamination and loss of species diversity.

Inadequate or unhealthy water is an economic drain because the lack of water will impede economic growth. Commercial fishing and agriculture suffer and families pay more for residential water use. The revenue generated by tourism and recreational outdoors activities (such as fishing and water sports) will decline. Businesses that use water for manufacturing operations will also incur higher operating costs and may be forced to relocate.

“Alabama is vulnerable right now because it does not have a statewide water plan, and it can hurt us in water negotiations in the future,” said Keith Johnston, managing attorney at the Birmingham office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Georgia and Florida have state water plans, while Alabama does not. The lack of a state water management plan may be relevant in the ultimate resolution of the legal dispute between Alabama, Georgia and Florida over water flow from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin to meet the needs of southeast Alabama. The state of Georgia diverts water from Lake Lanier (which is supplied by the Chattahoochee River) o supply the water needs of Atlanta’s vast metropolitan area. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled against Alabama in the Tri-State Water Wars lawsuit over this issue. A link to download the entire 11th Circuit opinion is available here and here.

The ruling means that Georgia can, for now, use more water from Lake Lanier. Meanwhile, Southeast Alabama is in extreme drought conditions.

The Alabama Water Agenda focuses on four key solutions for solving the state’s most pressing water problems and identifies specific actions the state can take to achieve these goals:

  • Water Policy—Alabama needs policies governing our waters with strong laws and clear, enforceable regulations.
  • Enforcement—Alabama agencies need sufficient authority and funding to enforce laws, which are meaningless without adequate enforcement.
  • Agency Coordination—Alabama has seven agencies with differing responsibilities for managing state waterways that often conflict or overlap, creating confusion, disagreement, and inaction. Alabama’s agencies need better coordination.
  • Funding— Existing state programs that monitor and protect our waters are grossly and chronically under-funded. Additional resources are needed to properly implement our existing laws and to provide for new and expanded programs that will better protect our waters.

I’ll be talking with Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, about the updated Alabama Water Agenda and what individual citizens can do to preserve, protect and enjoy Alabama’s valuable water resources. Look for an update in about a week.

Disclosure: I am a member of the board of directors of the Alabama Rivers Alliance.

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