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Hartselle Enquirer

Darkened sky was 2008 bright spot

By By Rep. Ronald Grantland, Guest Columnist
As we look back on 2008, it is easy to think no good news has come out of the year.
Gov. Riley just declared the largest proration of the education budget since 1961, stating that education revenue will be 12.5 percent less than what is needed. Alabama’s unemployment rate rose in November to 6.1 percent. While it is better than the national rate of 6.7 percent, and better than our neighbors in Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia, it is higher than it’s been in years.
The one bright area in 2008 is that the drought of the past two years is finally over.
A drought may seem minor compared to the calamities of the economy. That is the problem with a drought: as soon as it’s over we forget how much of a threat it was and we do nothing about it. But this past drought was a wake up call to Alabama, and mercifully now that it is over we must plan for our water.
The U.S. Drought Monitor recently reported that Alabama’s two-year drought is finally over. Rain came this fall and the beginning of winter, raising the moisture content of the soil and replenishing depleted groundwater supplies. There are still parts of the state that are classified as abnormally dry, but that is not unusual for this time of year.
The drought was so bad it ranked with Alabama’s most severe, going back to the 1839-40 drought, and even one that scientists have recorded using climate information in tree rings from the 16th century.
It is important to recognize how terrible and dangerous this past drought was. Millions had to ration for the first time. Alabama’s lakes went to their lowest levels in decades. Alexander City, a town defined by its relationship with Lake Martin, had to buy floating pumps to draw water from the middle of the lake.
Who can forget the images of docks left high and dry? Withered crops were left in the fields. Hay became scarce and herds of livestock had to be sold. It was probably the first time people started thinking about what might happen if there was no water at all.
Alabama relies on its water resources more than most states. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that approximately 10 percent of the freshwater resources in the entire country originate in or flow through Alabama. At least one-sixth of the surface area of Alabama is comprised of lakes, reservoirs, ponds, wetlands, estuaries, and flowing rivers and streams, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.
We use our rivers for navigation, moving things like coal and timber from the fields to the Gulf and on to international markets. Tourism and recreation rely on our water resources for billions in economic activity. We generate a significant portion of our electricity with our water. Our watersheds are central to all industrial and agricultural efforts in the state. All of it was put at-risk in this last drought.
For the first time, Alabama is learning from its drought experience. The Legislature set up the Joint Committee on Water Policy and Management, a bipartisan group that is looking at long term water planning, a first for Alabama. While it may take a few more years to develop a comprehensive water management plan, we are finally taking our first concrete steps toward that plan, and the committee’s work will lead to effective legislation to protect and nurture our water resources.
The drought may be over, but another could be just around the corner. The drought has taught us that we can no longer take water for granted, and state government must step up to protect this essential resource.