We must learn from the drought
Johnny Mack Morrow
We had a good soaking rain in the last week, but it still wasn't enough to make up the rainfall deficit for the year. The drought is still going, and we'll need weeks of heavy downpours to make a dent in our rain shortfall.
It has been said that drought is the overlooked stepchild of natural disasters. Drought is not like a hurricane, where the wind, waves, and swirling satellite images make for dynamic pictures on television. Nor is it like tornados, floods, or severe weather that knocks down trees and destroys houses – disasters where we can easily see the damage.
Drought creeps up on us. It is a slow motion disaster that often doesn't get our attention until it becomes a crisis. Though it may not be as powerful an image as the devastation of a hurricane, the pictures of drained lakes, docks on barren dirt, and fields brown and parched, are starting to be just as jarring.
In Alabama, it is almost inconceivable that water would ever become a problem; its abundance is part of almost every aspect of our state. Our state seal is a map of our river systems, from the Tennessee River in the north to the Pea River in the south. We have the most navigable waterways of any other state, with barge traffic from Decatur to Mobile. We have more aquatic species than almost any other state. We generate much of our electricity by hydropower. We have thousands of miles of lakes that provide recreation and a vibrant tourism industry.
Yet with the second straight year of well below normal rainfall, this historic drought is beginning to threaten every aspect of our water resources and the things we've come to rely on from them.
The problems due to water shortages are sometimes shocking. Browns Ferry nuclear plant had to shut down because it couldn't draw enough cool water from the river for the reactor. Centre in Cherokee County had to move its water system intake deeper into Weiss lake. Paper mills across the state are threatened with shutdowns. Watering bans are being discussed in many places.
The drought has sharpened a water conflict with neighboring Georgia. Much of the watershed for two of Alabama's main rivers, the Coosa and Tallapoosa, begin in and around Atlanta, and the growth of northern Georgia area has been drawing more and more water from those sources. That is a problem for Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. Georgia must leave enough water flowing to Alabama. The three states have been looking for a agreement since the early 1990s, and now with drought causing water emergencies throughout Georgia, it makes it that much more difficult.
As we continue to try and hammer out an agreement, it is important for us to look at how Georgia got into such a predicament. The problem can be traced to a total lack of planning for water resources.
We must learn from their mistakes. It is time for Alabama to develop a statewide water plan.
While we've done a decent job at the local level planning for water resources, we have done little at the state level, and if Georgia can teach us anything, it is that water is not just a local issue, it has state and regional implications.
We need to evaluate the health and demand of our watersheds. We need to make accurate estimates of what our water needs will be and whether our resources are up to the task. And we need guidelines about development and water use that will maximize our resources. Once this is in place, then we will be in a better position to get our fair share of water regionally. Most importantly, we'll start protecting what we already have.
Drought may be a slow motion natural disaster compared to some others, but once it is here, there is no denying it. We must learn from it, and help plan for the future.
Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County.