New water momentum

Published 4:18 pm Wednesday, November 7, 2007

By Staff
The Southeast is suffering through a drought of historic proportions that has affected nearly every sector of Alabama's economy.
Following a summer of record high temperatures and a crippling lack of rain, many reservoirs and lakes located in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and other southeastern states are at extraordinarily low levels. This extreme lack of water has not only affected businesses, agriculture, tourism and recreation throughout our state and the entire region, but has further elevated already contentious water resource issues among the southeastern states.
For decades, Alabama, Georgia and Florida have been fighting over the flow of water out of federal reservoirs located around Atlanta, Georgia. These reservoirs were constructed by the federal government to serve the needs of all citizens along the waterways in all three states. However, due to the population boom in Atlanta, the State of Georgia has reallocated water for its own needs. Regardless of the fact that these reservoirs were built with taxpayer funds for certain authorized purposes, which did not include the Atlanta-area water supply, the State of Georgia requested a decrease in the withdrawal amounts from these reservoirs to increase the water available to the Atlanta area.  
I understand the needs of the citizens of Atlanta, but I cannot support any changes that adversely impact our residents, who are clearly in a similar position. I strongly opposed Georgia's request to the Army Corps of Engineers, who manage the reservoirs, to drastically limit water releases from Lake Lanier, one of the reservoirs that serves Alabama. Georgia had framed its argument by making this an issue of people versus mussels and sturgeons. However, this simply is not true.
In reality, drastic limitation of water releases would have had serious consequences for vital downstream interests. For example, the Farley Nuclear Plant near Dothan requires the water flowing in the Chattahoochee River for adequate cooling. If Farley shut down, the region's power grid would be at risk.  
Because of the serious issues surrounding the Corps' decision, I hosted a meeting on Nov. 1, 2007, with the senators and governors of both Georgia and Alabama to discuss this request and other major disputes that have become elevated during the drought. The governors then joined Florida's governor and the leaders of several federal agencies to specifically address what should be done about water flowing to Alabama and Florida from federal reservoirs such as Lakes Allatoona and Lanier.
Following the meeting between the governors and federal officials, Interior Secretary Kempthorne announced that while the water flow would be reduced from Lake Lanier, it would not be a reduction significant enough to disrupt downstream activities. Additionally, the Corps recognized that Atlanta's withdrawals from Lake Allatoona have exceeded its allowed amount. I am hopeful that the Corps will rectify the situation in the near future. This decision will allow Farley Nuclear Plant to remain operational, and the recognition of Atlanta's excessive water use will allow the Corps to determine a short-term solution to relieve Alabama.
It is unrealistic to believe this problem will be solved tomorrow. However, because the Southeast is suffering from the worst drought in over 100 years it is increasingly important that neighboring states work together to ensure that all water needs are met. Alabama's farmers, residents and business are just as much in need of that water as are people and industry in Atlanta.   
I believe it is possible to approach this issue from the standpoint that the entire region is suffering, and the needs of everyone must be equally represented in an equitable solution.  When we frame the issues in that light, we stand a better chance of avoiding the kind of heated rhetoric we have seen in recent weeks.
Ultimately, only the arrival of rain will relieve the hardships of this drought.
However, if we fairly allocate the water we have now, we can minimize this drought's effect on everyone. Furthermore, if we can arrive at an equitable distribution of the rain that eventually falls, we can hopefully negate the effects a future drought might have on future generations to come.
Richard Shelby represents Alabama in the U.S. Senate.

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