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Fishermen on the waters of the Tennessee River on Wilson Lake just below Wheeler Dam on Thursday.  The Tennessee River is a focus of the water rights battle between Alabama and Georgia, which has been fueled by the prolonged drought.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Fishermen on the waters of the Tennessee River on Wilson Lake just below Wheeler Dam on Thursday. The Tennessee River is a focus of the water rights battle between Alabama and Georgia, which has been fueled by the prolonged drought.

Not enough to go around?
State leaders eye drought, think river protection

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Alabama is not the only state without a statewide water-use plan.

Among U.S. states in the official worst-drought category, many lie in the Southeast. Alabama, one of the parched-state leaders, has the worst drought conditions in at least 100 years.

Water experts at the Alabama Office of Water Resources have worked on parts of a state plan for years. As far back as 2005, water resources officials said they could do nothing until a court resolved the state’s water disputes with Georgia and Florida.

Alabama is one of five Southeastern states that lack a completed statewide plan to deal with water use and drought. The National Drought Monitoring Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln lists the others: Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas.

Georgia is home to Atlanta, where 4.5 million people now have a 90-day water reserve.

Last week when Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin proposed the city look north to the Tennessee River for help, the drought issue got closer to Decatur and North Alabama.

State officials in Georgia said they will not pursue Franklin’s proposal. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which controls use of water from the Tennessee River, has regulations about transfers to other areas not on the river.

But Atlanta’s proposal in the midst of extreme drought with no alternate plan for water raises concerns in North Alabama.

What would happen to Decatur if water diversions along the Tennessee resulted in less water in the river locally? What has to happen for the state to put a plan in place?

Most Alabama counties in the Tennessee Valley now have local legislative acts to protect against water diversions from the river to places outside their counties.

Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties all have local acts in place.

Some people wonder if the laws are enough protection.

“In my opinion, the only way to protect the Tennessee River is with a statewide water plan,” said Jeremy Nails, president and chief executive officer of the Morgan County Economic Development Association.

Nails said the river is one of the major reasons many industries located in Decatur.

“We are real concerned, but I think TVA is our strongest ally,” Nails said. He said he thinks the county’s legislative delegation, along with those in other TVA-served counties, will continue to work on the issue. More than 200 businesses located in the area because of the river, Nails said. Recreation and tourism are other concerns.

Nails said that with issues of drought in the forefront, the governor and other officials in Montgomery may feel more pressure to complete the water plan.

No complete plan

The Alabama Office of Water Resources is charged with developing a water plan. The office has had portions of the plan for several years, but it is not complete.

Water resource officials referred calls about the plan to Gov. Bob Riley’s office last week. Communications Director Jeff Emerson did not respond to repeated requests to explain why, after so many years, there is no water plan.

Rep. Bill Dukes, D-Decatur, said the Tennessee Valley Coalition is an outgrowth of discussions about how to protect the Valley’s greatest natural resource.

“We don’t take the issues of protecting the river lightly here in the Valley,” he said. “It opened our eyes to what can happen if people don’t see a need to conserve our resources.”

He says a state plan is a must.

TVA officials say that any attempt to divert water from TVA river basins requires lengthy environmental studies and federal permits.

TVA spokesman Gil Francis said because of the drought, the river levels have been at minimum seasonal-water-flow levels since February.

With water systems, navigation and recreation concerns to consider in the seven states TVA serves, diversion would be complicated.

Francis called for regional or national planning for water use.

And he had a reminder. Weather changes.

“At some point, the rain will come again,” he said.

“Drought does not have the drama of a hurricane or flood. In its early stages, drought is easy for people to ignore,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mediation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

National drought projections released Thursday from his office predict extreme drought conditions in much of Alabama and other parts of the South through January.

“Sometimes it may be there just isn’t enough water to meet the needs of an area,” Fuchs said.

That is where a regional or national plan could help.

Alabama State Climatologist John R. Christy said a state plan would help Alabama know how much water different areas have, need and use. Areas could know before a drought if they to not have enough water to meet needs during different levels of drought.

“In general, the Southeast gets plenty of rainfall,” Christy said. But even in the South, Christy said, states need measures to conserve. Atlanta is one example.

Atlanta’s lesson

“Atlanta learned it does not have quite enough water,” said Christy. “Alabama has the same problem.”

Georgia may have problems with leaky water pipes and malfunctioning water meters, but one state water protection official said the state does have a drought plan.

Despite widespread reports to the contrary last week, Georgia implemented such a plan in 2003, said Becky Champion, a watershed protection official with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

Like Alabama, Georgia does not have a current water use plan in place to help pinpoint areas where not enough water is available.

That fact complicates drought management and makes it harder to anticipate needs.

Champion said because of the 2007 drought, her state would change its drought plan.

“We have never seen a drought like this,” she said. “This data will set a new precedent.”

States’ plans: water usage and drought

Alabama and Georgia:

Have drought plans but lack state water plans to fully implement.

TVA states with current water use/drought plans:

Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia

TVA state with no drought plan and no plan for one:

Mississippi

TVA state with water use/drought plan in update:

Tennessee

Other Southern states without water use plans:

Arkansas, Louisiana

Elsewhere in the U.S.:

37 states had drought plans as of October 2006.

8 states in the Great Lakes lack plans.

SOURCES: National Drought Mitigation Center, Lincoln, Neb., and southern state drought management experts

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