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September 19, 2000

Could Alabama Be Running Out of Water?

by Brad McLane

"You don't miss your water 'til the well runs dry" -- W.C. Handy

Perhaps history books of the future will elevate W.C. Handy's status from Alabama musician to Alabama prophet. For in the well-watered state of Alabama, we have generally perceived water shortages as a minor concern. After all, during most years the state receives substantial rainfall, with average annual precipitation ranging from a low of 49 inches in the Montgomery area to a high of 66 inches along the coast.

Unfortunately, most people in Alabama are unaware of the extent of the pressures that we are exerting on our water resources. But whether we are aware of it or not, we are running out of water -- not because nature does not provide enough, but because we continue to waste so much of what nature provides.

In many respects, the ongoing, decade-long "water wars" among Georgia, Alabama and Florida over the right to use the states' shared water resources should have served as a wake-up call for each state to do more to conserve its water. But most of us are still sleeping. While this issue has incited into action a number of passionate citizens, few seem to understand that the interstate water war is only one part of the broader picture of our water woes.

At this moment, we are entering one of the more severe droughts in the history of the states of Alabama and Georgia, and yet neither state is prepared with any drought plan to manage water supplies during times of shortage.

In Alabama, our problems begin with a lack of planning and end with a lack of public policies to implement any plans that we might someday develop. Alabama may be the last state in the United States to adopt the basic "public policy tools" that are necessary to effectively manage water supplies.

Although it is complicated in its application, the premise of water management is quite simple. First, you must decide how much water should be saved for the environment -- for example, by reserving a certain flow of rivers and streams to support fish and aquatic wildlife. Then, you must allocate the remaining water to various water users. When supply exceeds demand there is no need for regulation. But where demands exceed the available water supply, it is necessary to restrict water usage.

Unfortunately, Alabama has no law to restrict water consumption where and when such restrictions are necessary, nor does Alabama have an "in-stream flow policy" to require that a certain amount of water remain in our waterways to protect aquatic ecosystems, fisheries, and other in-stream uses of water.

Meanwhile, we are placing increasingly more pressure on our water resources. Alabama's population grew from 3.6 million people in 1975 to just over 4 million in 1990, and we are steadily approaching a population of 5 million people. Moreover, the average person in Alabama today uses 150 percent more water than the average person used in 1955.

What is more, stresses on our water supplies are not limited to surface waters. Water levels in the Navafalia aquifer that Dothan uses for its drinking water are about 150 feet below pre-pumping levels, and the aquifer continues to decline at the rate of about four feet a year.

Alabama has no policy to ensure that some water remains in our streams and rivers, and no regulatory framework to restrict water usage. Meanwhile, our demand for water is steadily increasing, and our neighbors in Atlanta are getting thirstier. Unless we act now, the degradation of water quality, fisheries, and native ecosystems is inevitable in the years and decades to come. In order to address this problem, the Alabama State Legislature will need to pass new, progressive water management legislation. Unless we find a way to improve state law and policy, most people will learn about water management the hard way -- when the well runs dry. And then, of course, it will be too late.


Brad McLane is the executive director of Alabama Rivers Alliance (ARA) based in Birmingham, AL. This essay appeared in a recent newsletter of the organization and is reprinted here with permission of Alabama Rivers Alliance. Telephone: (877) 862-5260; email:; web:


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