Alabama Faces Another Drought Season With No Plan for Water Use; Governor Shifts Direction in Who Will Produce One

This pier on Lake Martin was left high and dry during the drought of 2007. (Source: ADECA)

Memories of Alabama’s devastating 2016 drought must be short.

A reminder: The Cahaba and other rivers stopped flowing in places, and water utilities were slow to place restrictions on their customers when reservoirs ran almost dry. The worst of the eight-month drought didn’t end until spring 2017.

Now, as Alabama’s climatologist predicts dryer months ahead, Gov. Kay Ivey has disbanded a broad panel charged with developing a comprehensive water use plan for the state.

Environmental groups are voicing surprise and dismay. The leader of one says disruption in the planning process delays a plan that is needed quickly.

The action puts future water plan efforts in the hands of an appointed commission that has no public members and has not produced an actionable water management plan in its 27 years of existence.

A recently released survey showed 80 percent of Alabama voters support action by the state Legislature to establish a comprehensive water management plan, something found in every other state in the Southeast. The survey was conducted on behalf of nonprofits Southern Environmental Law Center and the Alabama Rivers Alliance.

Ivey’s action also came despite a government prediction of an unusually dry season. Areas of drought persist in southeastern and central western counties, according to State Climatologist John Christy. He said Alabama is in a dry period that “possibly will become dryer relative to normal moisture in the short- and long-term through the winter.”

Water Planning Moves to Industry-Connected Commission 

The governor has moved responsibility for a plan to the Alabama Water Resources Commission, a 19-member body appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House of Representatives. The commission oversees the Office of Water Resources, part of the state agency charged with recruiting business and industry to the state, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Assigning the water plan to this agency “is disappointing and a step backward,” said Keith Johnston, managing director of the Birmingham office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Among other effects, lack of a plan keeps Alabama without a seat at the table in ongoing water-use litigation involving Georgia and Florida, he said. The governor’s action, he said, “continues to put our state at a disadvantage in current and future interstate water conflicts.”

Johnston added that the state is good at assessing the status of the state’s waters, “but we lag far behind our neighbors in terms of actual water planning and management.”

Cindy Lowry, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, said without a plan to regulate water usage when dry times occurred in 2007 and 2016-2017, rivers “have gone dry, with dead fish everywhere, and everybody trying to figure out where their water was going to come from.”

Lack of state planning makes investment decisions difficult for farmers and other users and has crippled the state’s ability to address water shortages, according to a statement jointly issued by the two advocacy groups.

A comprehensive water management plan would allow more equitable use of water from the state’s 132,000 miles of rivers and streams, they said. Currently, any individual or concern whose property touches the water can remove as much water as it wants even if it leaves downstream property owners high and dry. This pits farmers, industry, water utilities, recreational interests, and others against each other.

Ivey’s action was announced in a Nov. 1 letter to the panel, called the Alabama Water Agencies Working Group. The group was appointed five years ago by former Gov. Robert Bentley and has held some two dozen meetings across the state with hundreds of citizens and other stakeholders. It has amassed data and testimony in three reports to buttress an eventual plan for even-handed management of the resource.

The third report was submitted to Bentley in late 2016 and has been sitting on Ivey’s desk until this month, when she transferred it to the OWR.

In her letter, the governor stated that “the waters of the state appear to meet both current and future needs for some time to come” and sent the group’s reports to the Office of Water Resources to “refine future water-use forecasts as needed.”

Responsibilities for State Water Policy Scattered

Under the 1975 Alabama Water Resources Act, the OWR was given responsibility for developing a management plan. Environmental groups question the office’s role, saying it primarily has authority over surface water use and, in nearly 30 years, has not produced a water use plan.

Other state agencies have primary oversight responsibility for fish and aquatic life, recreation, groundwater, water quality and agriculture, all of which were included in the working group dissolved by the governor.

The 2014 Alabama Drought Planning and Response Act directs the state to collect and disseminate drought information, but it contains no authority to regulate water use.

That act is the responsibility of the economic and community affairs department. Its director, Kenneth Boswell, said last week that upcoming water assessments from his water resources office and the Geological Survey of Alabama will be combined with the three working group reports to “to propose the development” of a water management plan to be completed within three years – if it is funded by the Legislature at a cost of at least $2 million.

Lowry was surprised at Boswell’s statement. “This is the first we have heard of ADECA developing a plan with a three-year timeline and a price tag,” she said, adding she wants to know how stakeholders will be included in the new process.

“Unfortunately, the Alabama Water Resources Commission has never been an adequate representative of stakeholders,” she said. “No environmental NGO (non-governmental organization) is represented on the commission.”

State Rep. Patricia Todd of Birmingham told WBHM public radio earlier this month that she plans to introduce a bill in the next legislative session to give the state the authority for allocating water in times of drought emergencies.

Todd said the “big mules” in the state, naming Alabama Power Company and the Alabama Farmers Federation as two, “have been in opposition to this because they want access to that water.”

ALFA did not respond to an invitation to comment on the issue. Alabama Power, which manages 14 hydroelectric power plants in the state, said in a statement that it would “participate in any future efforts to further strengthen state drought responses whenever such needs are demonstrated.”

Will the new process be successful? “AWAWG (Alabama Water Agencies Working Group) was not a perfect process, largely because we had no funding. Now we’re fearful that the conversation between agencies and stakeholders will just stop,” Lowry said.

She said, “We don’t need three more years to identify policy needs – we need to start developing a plan now before it’s too late.”