No time to be complacent about water policies

The winter months have a way of lulling us into a sense of complacency about rainfall, or the lack thereof. There's something about the fact that air temperatures aren't soaring above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and plants aren't wilting that tends to help us forget that we're still in the midst of a drought of historic proportions.

But it would be a mistake to forget now, especially as the federal government, as well as state and local governments, are starting to weigh in and offer their own solutions to the problems associated with drought.

In one of the Southeastern states most affected by the prolonged drought — Georgia — legislators currently are debating a statewide water plan that could have ramifications for generations to come. And it's important that farmers have a voice in the plan, or at the very least know what it contains.

As of this writing, Georgia's General Assembly was in the process of hammering out a statewide water plan that has been in the works since 2004. The state's first effort at water regulation came in 2001, during another severe drought. That effort, however, was scuttled in 2003 after protests from environmental groups and a return to normal rainfall amounts.

The new water plan, as presented to the legislature, would form 11 planning districts that will determine how to divide the state's limited water supplies. And as with anything, the plan comes with a price, and it's a big one. It's estimated it'll cost Georgia an estimated $36.5 million to gather data and create regional water plans for the districts over the next three years.

There is still a perception — especially among some in south Georgia — that the plan is not strong enough to prevent metro Atlanta from taking more than their fair share from the Flint River and other waterways that serve agriculture.

The decision-making power in each council will rest with 25 people appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House of Representatives. About one-third of the seats will be set aside for local elected leaders. The Georgia Farm Bureau has gone on record calling for farmer participation in the planning districts while expressing concern that too much authority might be vested with the director of the state's Environmental Protection Division of Department of Natural Resources.

Meanwhile, across the river in Alabama, officials aren't quite as far along in statewide water planning. In fact, other than a few vague suggestions on how to proceed, nothing has been done, and it'll take much more than the governor declaring statewide “Pray for Rain” days.

Alabama has had the dubious distinction of being the epicenter of the current long-term drought, but the state has no semblance of a water policy. There is, however, a glimmer of hope. State agencies, academic experts, non-government organizations, elected officials, citizens and some business interests are coming together and have expressed an interest in finding a long-term solution that will protect Alabama's water resources. There's nothing like a 100-year drought to spur folks into action.

Meanwhile, Alabama, Florida and Georgia continue their 17-year water wars, but an end might be in sight on that front. The governors of the three states are following the blueprint of a sweeping, 20-year water-sharing agreement that was previously brokered for seven Western states along the Colorado River. The three governors have promised to work out the details by Feb. 15, and the federal government has agreed to review the plan by March 15. This would allow the agreement to be in effect before the typically dry summer months.

Georgia and Alabama are not unlike many other states in that they've never had a plan for dividing water drawn from rivers, lakes and underground aquifers within the states. In Georgia, it wasn't until the 1970s that the state even began keeping track of how much water communities, farmers and industries were using.

But we're in the final days of unregulated water use, in the Southeast and throughout the United States, and if farmers don't find a place at the table, they'll be coming up short very quickly.

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