As legislators, environmentalists, managers of the state’s water supply and other stakeholders discuss a comprehensive water policy for Alabama, eighth graders at Indian Springs School are working on the same thing.
The students are developing their own answers, hoping that what they learn as part of their class project might be incorporated into the state’s overall solution to protect its water sources.
“It would be nice to have the students present their project to somebody at that level,” said Lisa Balazs, eighth grade science teacher and department chair at Indian Springs School, a private institution in Shelby County.
Balazs’ students will spend the next six to eight weeks in class developing a proposed water policy for Alabama. Balazs unveiled the details of the project to her class on February 13, the day after the Permanent Joint Legislative Committee on Water Policy and Management met at the Alabama State House. Interested lawmakers, representatives of the state’s environmental community, and guardians of the state’s water resources are trying to develop a plan that addresses water use during droughts and for irrigation purposes, rectifies inequalities regarding water use, and protects the state’s most precious natural resource.
Governor Robert Bentley has commissioned five government agencies responsible for water use in Alabama to develop a comprehensive statewide water management plan and propose possible legislative solutions. Those agencies include the Geological Survey of Alabama, the Office of Water Resources, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries. Collectively, the agencies make up the Alabama Water Agencies Working Group.
Last year, Bentley charged the group to create a comprehensive database of Alabama’s water resources, meet with all stakeholders connected to water use in Alabama — which would include those economic, ecological, industrial, environmental, agricultural, recreational and utility and public drinking water interests — and develop a plan by December 1, 2013. “[W]ater is one of the State’s vital resources, and it must be managed and protected for all who have interest in it,” Bentley said in an April 18, 2012 letter to key members of the government agencies devising the state water management plan.
The effort is long overdue, according to environmental groups.
“We are one of only a handful of states in the country, and the only state in the region, which does not manage the withdrawal of water out of our water resources,” said Mitch Reid, program director for the Alabama Rivers Alliance, a nonprofit Birmingham-based river protection organization and one of the groups leading the charge for a comprehensive state water management policy.
“If you look at our neighboring states, they all have differing plans and different approaches to managing water withdrawal but they all do it in some form or fashion,” he said. The lack of a state water management policy has made disputes with Georgia and Florida over rivers in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) River Basin and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin more difficult to resolve — and not necessarily in Alabama’s favor, Reid said.
The absence of a comprehensive water plan has also made the handling of water during droughts uneven and unfair. “During droughts is when management of water resources really becomes a question within the state,” Reid said. “A city like Birmingham can do everything right as far as protecting water, in terms of developing a drought plan within the city to make sure we’re not watering grass on even or odd days. But there’s nothing to say that a water user just upstream of the city can’t use the water for filling water balloons. So even if a particular water user like Birmingham is doing everything right, there still needs to be a statewide management plan to make sure that everybody is being treated fairly.”
Current policy is based on old English common law and doesn’t address more contemporary and complex issues with respect to water usage, Reid added. “Alabama’s current system of water use is based…on an assumption that water will never run out and there’s an unlimited amount of water for everyone,” he said. The current law also recognizes the rights of those with land nearest a water source over those who live farther away, but who are equally dependent on a particular water source. This approach to water usage is known as riparian law or riparian rights. “That’s the way courts have interpreted the law even as late as the late ’90s,” Reid said. “That presents some interesting problems for water users in the state.”
Groups like the Alabama Rivers Alliance and the Black Warrior Riverkeeper fear that under such laws, priority will be given to landowners nearest water sources more so than the wider public which relies on drinking water.
Aaron Traywick, a director for the Coalition of Alabama Students for the Environment, said that it’s imperative that any state water management plan puts a heavy emphasis on the needs of Birmingham, since it’s the largest metropolitan area in the state with two water sources — the Black Warrior and Cahaba rivers — cited by the Office of Water Resource as facing water quantity issues if not addressed.
“As the largest metropolitan center, the Greater Birmingham region deserves a huge focus of this plan,” Traywick said. “When it comes to statewide water management, we really need to be looking at Birmingham and plan for the future of Birmingham.”
Reid also said that as more farmers move from a rain-fed system of irrigation to more modern irrigation processes, the need for a comprehensive water management plan becomes even more critical. “Where farmers irrigate is not necessarily where the farmers own land,” Reid said. “They want to irrigate up above the streams because the streams that their land actually touches may be way too small to irrigate from. They need to irrigate from big massive rivers we have.”
Alabama has been blessed with water sources, Reid said, with more than 14 percent of the water flowing through the United States coming through the state via the Mobile Bay Basin. “Unless we’re in a drought or unless we overtax specific systems, there’s really quite a bit of water for all the users and to protect the environment,” he said. “We don’t have a water shortage problem in Alabama… What we have is a water management problem. At the end of the day, most people understand that water is something that has to be protected and has to be managed by the state because it’s essentially for everybody. And that goes for whether it’s for drinking or for industry or navigation or farming. Everyone has a need for a secure and predictable source of water.”
Such complex issues as these will be tackled in Balazs’ two eighth grade classes over the next few weeks. “The goal of this for students is that they learn a lot about water. They learn a lot about the environment. They learn a lot about how you put together a policy and what role politics and law play in environmental science,” she said.
In assigning her students the project, Balazs had students select a particular group they would represent. Those groups included all of the stakeholders connected to the water issue in Alabama.
Eighth grade student Joseph Copeland, 13, randomly chose the Alabama Environmental Council to represent. Copeland said the project will serve to solidify what he wants to do when he becomes an adult. “I’ve always had an interest in environmental safety and keeping the environment clean,” he said. “I think I’ll fully understand how we can keep our environment safe and also learn the different aspects of keeping it safe and how everyone does their part, and how everyone plays a role.”
Last year, Balazs had her class develop a national energy policy, which students, upon completion, presented to a panel of experts who visited the school. Balazs hopes to take this class assignment one step further and schedule a visit to Montgomery in April when students finish their project. Traywick is helping the class with its project, both providing speakers from as many representative stakeholders as he can enlist and arranging an audience with lawmakers and others who are helping develop a water policy.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to set up something where the students get to speak with legislators throughout the day, just on general issues of concern like why we care about drinking water quality and quantity, why drinking water is important, why we should preserve its quality and why we should plan for the proper amounts being there in the future,” Traywick said.
With so many voices coming together to address Alabama’s water policy, at least a few more youthful ones are now being added to the mix. “Really, what these kids are doing is unprecedented, and it’s a beautiful thing,” Traywick said.
“I’m very excited to be able to present their research after it’s done.”
For more information about the need for a statewide water management plan from the Alabama Rivers Alliance perspective, click here.