By Cindy Lowry
Special to the Press-Register
The current Alabama Legislature has an unprecedented opportunity to pass landmark legislation that will benefit all Alabamians by putting the state on a path to sustaining our valuable water resources for generations to come.
Water is our state’s most vital resource. Without it, we cannot sustain our people, our businesses, our energy needs or our food supplies. Yet Alabama currently has no plan for how this essential resource will be managed and sustained.
Last week, a bill was introduced in the Alabama House that could begin to solve this problem. HB 674, the Alabama Water Sustainability and Security Act, would require the Alabama Office of Water Resources to develop a comprehensive water management plan, in partnership with other relevant state agencies and with broad stakeholder input.
The timing of this bill could not be more urgent. With Atlanta’s inexhaustible expansion, Georgia’s water demands continue to grow.
To meet these needs, Georgia currently has more than a dozen reservoirs planned for the Atlanta area — three of which are proposed in the upper Coosa River Basin, a main artery that runs through the heart of Alabama and impacts many communities, businesses, farmers and people on its way down to form the Alabama River. Others are planned in the Chattahoochee, Tallapoosa and Tennessee basins to hold back water before it reaches our borders.
Barring something drastic, the decades-long dispute between Alabama and Georgia has no end in sight. Alabama’s water planning efforts will only strengthen our position in demanding the water we deserve.
This issue is of particular importance to Alabama’s coastal communities. Not only are the waters and communities of coastal Alabama an essential part of our state’s economy, but they also lie downstream from most of the waterways that run across our great state.
The rivers that flow together to form the magnificent Tensaw Delta are dependent on proper management and stewardship of the upstream users of those rivers. The vitality of our coastal fisheries and oyster reefs, which are undergoing significant restoration and recovery, also rely on the proper management of our water resources upstream.
Without a statewide water management plan, there is no certainty that the proper amount of water will flow downstream at the right times to support those coastal communities and resources for future generations.
In order to protect our water resources, we have to have a management plan that details how much water we need and how we are going to use it. Equally important, we need to know how much water we need to leave in the streams to make sure that they are healthy and that the water in them is safe to drink.
While our leaders have long recognized the need for such a plan, they have always found one excuse or another to kick the can down the road.
While the end of the 2012 session will be busy with important issues, such as state budgets cuts, nothing could be more important to economic growth, job security and public health in this state than ensuring that our most valuable natural resource is protected and managed sustainably.
Now that the state has asked the Supreme Court to turn its focus on Alabama’s water needs and water management, we as a state must get serious about securing our water for the future.
The Legislature and our governor have recognized the need for a comprehensive water management plan, but they need encouragement from all citizens of the state to make this happen in the short time left in the current legislative session.
There is a meeting Wednesday of the Permanent Joint Legislative Committee on Water Policy and Management, led by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Rep. Alan Booth, R-Troy. This meeting is an important chance for the legislators to make comprehensive water management planning a priority in the 2012 session.
We hope all of our state leaders will realize that our most vital resource is at stake, and that they will make the decision to pass HB 674 this year.
Cindy Lowry is the executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, Alabama’s statewide, nonprofit river protection organization. Contact her via the organization’s website:www.alabamarivers.org.