Steps toward a statewide water plan
Johnny Mack Morrow
Water is vital to almost everything in Alabama. Our rivers, lakes and streams affect every aspect of our lives, and dominate our landscape.
The hundreds of Alabama lakes are the basis of much of the state's tourism industry, and much of our power is generated from the dams that create the largest lakes. We transport everything from rockets to coal on the huge lengths of our rivers. A little known fact is that Alabama has the most navigable waterways of any state; you can take a boat from Decatur on the Tennessee River and go all the way to Mobile by using the Tenn-Tom waterway.
Speaking of Mobile, the huge delta of the Alabama River sitting near the port city is the basis of the state's fishing industry, and is one of the premier wetland habitats of the country.
The rivers of Alabama were so important to the founders of the state that they were added to Alabama's Great Seal. Unfortunately, it took a disaster to make us more aware of how important and fragile the state's water resources are. For two years, we were in the grips of one of the worst droughts on record. The National Weather Service placed the entire state in the extreme drought category. Crops withered. The landscape turned brown.
The stark visual reminder of how severe the drought had become was the level of the state's biggest lakes. We all saw the pictures of docks lying on hard pan, with water no where near to be seen. Giant bodies of water started to look like little ponds.
What was worse is that the terrible drought conditions led to water rationing in many parts of the state. At the worst point last year, almost half of state residents were under local water restrictions, because rainfall totals were 30 inches below normal.
The drought was not only felt in Alabama, almost every other southern state felt the effects. And the water shortage brought to a flashpoint the long-running battle between Alabama, Florida and Georgia over the watersheds the three states share.
Several of Alabama's most important watersheds begin in Georgia, around the greater Atlanta area. The growth of that city has pushed Georgia to take more water, and that in turn leaves less water flowing into Alabama. Over the past year, we have sued in federal court over Georgia's water demands, tried to come up with an agreement between the three states to no avail, and argued publicly about what to do next. We have been fighting this battle for two decades, and at some point in the near future, there will be some sort of resolution.
However, Georgia just enacted its first major water plan, and if Alabama is going to get its fair share in any federal settlement, we will have to do the same. In response, during the last legislative session, the Joint Legislative Committee on Water Policy and Management was established. The committee met for the first time this week to begin setting up a statewide water policy.
Alabama water planning is behind many states. In fact, state government doesn't even know how much water is within our borders, a crucial first step in planning. The state's Office of Water Resources has no authority and can do little more than advise. Moreover, there are few water regulations on the books, with only the largest industrial water consumers required to report usage.
Developing a statewide management plan will require substantial work. Forming the committee is an important first step, and a good way of bringing together experts to craft a plan that will help us conserve our water resources.
We are all thankful for this spring's rains that have started to move the state out of the severe drought category. The lakes have returned to normal, and the land has begun to recover. But the lessons of the drought remain. We must do a better job of planning for water; it can no longer be taken for granted.
Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears each Wednesday.