Southeastern states look at water policy

With a fifth consecutive year of drought parching many areas of the Southeast, some states are beginning the process of drawing up legislation or making recommendations for allocating water resources. Meanwhile, farm leaders are working to insure that agriculture is adequately represented in future water policy.

Members of the Alabama Farmers Federation Water Resource Planning Committee are taking a "proactive" approach to water planning.

"The drought situation in 2000 — especially the effects of water restrictions on our nursery and greenhouse growers — and the ongoing negotiations among Alabama, Georgia and Florida point to the need for the federation to have a comprehensive water policy," says Chairman Dorman Grace of Walker County. "Our goal is to make sure we are ahead of the curve in dealing with water quality and quantity issues."

During a meeting this past summer, the committee heard from Trey Glenn, director of the Alabama Office of Water Resources (OWR). Glenn reviewed the state’s current water management strategy, including updates on the Alabama Drought Assessment Planning Team, the Alabama Safe Dams Program and the tri-state water compact. He also assured the committee that the OWR is committed to seeking stakeholder input before pursuing new legislation or regulations.

Earlier this year, legislation failed in Alabama that would have required a person to submit a statement of beneficial use at least 90 days prior to the construction of any facility dependent upon the use or consumption of public water.

The Alabama Farmers Federation opposed that bill as well as one that would have transferred enforcement of Alabama’s Water Resource Act from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to the OWR. Glenn says he plans to introduce a new bill this year on dam safety.

Grace says developing a working relationship with Glenn and the OWR is key to the federation’s goal of insuring that farmers are well represented when it comes to the state’s water policy.

"As the population grows, the demand for water is increasing. Right now, the environmental community is very concerned about in-stream flows and how much water we are pulling out for public and private use," says Grace. "As a committee, part of our job is to educate ourselves and other producers about the challenges we likely will face over how we use water."

The 15-member Water Resources Committee was formed earlier this year by Jerry Newby, president of the federation, and includes farmers from all parts of the state and all major agricultural commodities.

Members of the committee have been challenged to:

o Determine agriculture’s needs and priorities in water usage.

o Address water quality and quantity issues.

o Evaluate existing federation water policies.

o Make recommendations for future federation water policies.

The Water Resources Planning Committee hopes to be able to recommend policy changes to the resolutions committee in time for adoption at this year’s annual meeting of the federation.

In Georgia, a group charged with making water allocation recommendations was scheduled to submit their final report this month to the governor and state legislators. The Joint Water Plan Study Committee was formed by Georgia lawmakers in 2001 to suggest ways to divide Georgia’s waters in the face of rapid growth and severe drought.

The 23 members of the committee include legislators, academics, a small-town mayor, farmers and corporate executives. The committee’s report is expected to result in a torrent of water bills that will hit the General Assembly in January.

The Joint Study Committee is proposing that Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) be authorized to deny new irrigation permits if there is not sufficient water flow in an affected stream or aquifer or if the application fails to demonstrate need. The committee also is recommending that holders of water permits be allowed to transfer their permit to someone seeking a water permit, subject to EPD approval.

Another important agriculture-related recommendation would require farmers to measure the water used by their irrigation systems and report it to the EPD. A cost-share program is being recommended to fund the installation and maintenance of measurement equipment.

Farmers also would be required to obtain permits to irrigate from ponds, impoundments or sinkholes. Farmers irrigating from multiple small wells at a pumping capacity of 100,000 gallons or more a day also would be required to obtain a permit.

Although the committee report maintains Georgia’s current water priority designation in times of emergency as human consumption first and agriculture second, EPD Director Harold Reheis says these priorities could be changed as a result of lawsuits. Because environmental groups have sued the EPD to nullify permits granted to cities seeking to withdraw more water from rivers for population growth, Reheis says it’s possible these groups could sue the EPD over farm permits.

The committee also has proposed two new government agencies:

o A water planning branch under the EPD would develop a 50-year, statewide water plan.

o An 11-member water council made up of heads of various state agencies would coordinate water planning and management.

Many environmentalists in Georgia are crying "foul" over the committee’s report, saying the panel removed several water protection provisions from its final report.

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