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WEDNESDAY, JUNE 20, 2007
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Waterways in jeopardy
Some rivers at lowest levels ever; government officials, concerned citizens call on Riley for help

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — More than 50 government officials and concerned citizens, including 25 mayors, have signed a letter asking Gov. Bob Riley to help deal with a drought that is "the worst in Alabama history," leaving some waterways at their lowest levels ever.

The letter said the Alabama River is not navigable for barges between Mobile and Selma and the lack of rainfall is threatening some drinking water systems.

Selma Mayor James Perkins said Tuesday the drought is a disaster for cities that depend on waterways for economic development and recreation. He said both the Alabama River and aquifers the city depends on for drinking water are "as low as they have ever been."

Perkins compared the drought to a hurricane.

"This is a different type of natural disaster. It has similar devastating effects on our communities," Perkins said.

The letter asks Riley to work with Alabama's congressional delegation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Legislature to come up with solutions to keep waterways open. Solutions mentioned included dredging the Alabama River and other waterways to make them navigable for barges and releasing water from out-of-state reservoirs that feed into Alabama lakes and rivers.

"We're beyond the red zone and have reached dangerously low levels on our waterways," said Jerry Sailors, co-chair of the Southeast Water Alliance and executive director of the Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association.

Sailors said a purpose of the letter was to alert the governor of the problems the low water levels are causing industry. He said one of the reasons German steel maker ThyssenKrupp decided to locate a giant plant north of Mobile was that it could transport supplies and goods by river to and from the plant site.

The governor was in Europe on Tuesday on an industry-hunting trip and had no immediate comment on the letter.

Sailors said the drought has also curtailed boating and other recreation activities as water levels have dropped on lakes and rivers, exposing tree stumps, sand bars and other hazards.

The letter mentions a $100 million plant being built on the Alabama River in Dallas County near Selma that would make wood pellets for fuel. The letter said the plant, operated by New Gas Concepts, plans to ship the wood chips to Mobile by barge, but currently the river is not navigable to barges.

Perkins, one of the mayors who signed the letter, said he hopes the governor will join forces with local officials to appeal to the federal government to dredge the river so the barges can make it between Mobile and Selma.

"By not maintaining the waterways, it puts the whole vitality of the region at risk," Perkins said.

Mayor Sheldon Day of Thomasville, who also signed the letter, said his city's drinking water comes from an intake facility on the Alabama River.

"It's gotten to the point where they are nearing the lowest possible level of water in the intake. If the level drops three or four more feet, we may have to take drastic measures," Day said.

Day said it rained Tuesday in Thomasville, the first significant rainfall in the Southwest Alabama town since early April.

"We were just tickled to death. Maybe this rain will help us catch back up on our water reserves. We've just been doing the minimal things we could do to survive the drought," Day said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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