Experts: Alabama needs water policy

Could it be that Alabama is not suffering as much from a lack of rain than from a surplus of shortsightedness?

While it is true that rain has been scarce this summer, the fact remains that even during drought cycles, Alabama receives far more rain on an annual basis than much of the rest of the country.

The problem involves stewardship — or, in this case, a critical lack of it.

Two water experts say it’s high time that Alabamians borrow a page from their counterparts out west and develop a plan so that moisture available from periods of high rainfall can be trapped and saved for times of the year when it’s most needed — like now, for example.

What’s critically needed, they say, is a water policy — something people in the rain-deficit West take for granted.

“Most people in the Southeast just get mixed up and lost when you talk about water policy,” says Jim Hairston, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System water coordinator and Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils.

But with the strong likelihood of a prolonged drought cycle throughout much of Alabama and the Southeast, it is high time Alabamians got comfortable with the idea, Hairston says. A major focus of this water policy should involve water harvesting, he says — developing a greater capacity for storing freshwater that otherwise washes off the landscape into rivers and streams and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico. Part of the policy would allow the movement of freshwater from streams to off-stream storage sites when it’s needed.

Granted, such a policy would involve the construction of more dams and reservoirs — something many self-described conservationists oppose. Nevertheless, given the increased demand from a wide variety of users — municipalities, industry and agriculture, to name only a few — Hairston says these dams and reservoirs will prove the most cost-effective solution over the long haul.

“We’ve got to do this in a way that balances human needs with ecosystem needs as best we can,” he says. “But we’ve got to get over this fear of building dams and reservoirs because without some kind of water harvesting policy in the future, we’re not going to have enough freshwater when we need it.”

Otherwise, critically needed freshwater will be washed away and effectively lost.

“Once this freshwater reaches the ocean, it goes into a salt sink, where it takes up to 4,500 years before it’s returned into the atmosphere and then falls back on the land surface as freshwater,” says Don Rodekohr, a natural resources advisor with the Department of Agronomy and Soils who works closely with Hairston.

For Hairston and Rodekohr alike, conservation is a matter of keeping freshwater out of that salt sink for as long as possible.

“Anything we can do from a conservation perspective to keep that water in a freshwater state so that we have access to it — that’s a good thing,” Rodekohr says.

Alabama’s freshwater resources are under more stress than they’ve ever been under before, not only because of prolonged drought but also because of human factors, such as increased urban and agricultural use, he adds.

Farming is one sector of Alabama’s economy that would benefit immeasurably from a water harvesting policy, according to the two experts. In fact, Hairston says a water policy aimed at enhancing irrigation of Alabama cropland could turn out to be one of the greatest forces for economic development in the state, particularly in the impoverished Black Belt.

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