Water Policy: A Business Perspective

Like everything else in life, in order to grow, thrive, and remain healthy, businesses and citizens need easy and ample access to one of our planet’s most basic resources – water.  As Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Water is the driving force of all nature.” Water resources remain a very important subject in the public policy arena, and the business community has been on the forefront of developing responsible water policy for decades.

In recent years however, politics has seeped its way into the water resources debate. Behind the false front of “good public policy,” there have been efforts to promote a political agenda that threatens economic development and is not based on sound data.

Specifically, there have been some calls to radically transform existing Alabama water policies with little or no data to back up claims that a water crisis is upon us.  It is much like a doctor ordering you to have major surgery but refusing to share his diagnosis of what ails you.

Alabama already has a water policy that is set by the Alabama Water Resources Commission and the Office of Water Resources (OWR), two agencies created by the Legislature in the early 1990s and tasked with collecting and assessing data and managing the state’s water resources.  The law also provides them with full regulatory power over water usage when conditions warrant.

Changes in our water laws will have far-reaching effects on Alabama’s economy, so any move in that direction must be preceded by in-depth study of areas like water use and availability, in-stream flows, and other pertinent areas.  Unfortunately, a lack of needed funding has dramatically slowed the process of gathering this important data and making it available for the necessary study. To realistically assess current water resources, needs and risks, we must address these funding needs. 

In 2009, the Legislature passed Senate Joint Resolution 5, which contained a specific outline of the type of data collection network that should be employed, but the effort has not been funded. As a result, needed forecasts and models concerning the state’s future water demands simply do not yet exist.

That is why we recommend and fully support increasing the budget appropriations for agencies charged with collecting this information.  Without it, our understanding of the state’s water resources will remain as muddy and murky as a rural creek bed, and determining which, if any, changes are needed in our laws will be impossible.

The legislature has provided some funding for a statewide water assessment and that work is still ongoing. Three agencies involved in the process presented a preliminary report on their efforts at a recent Joint Legislative Committee on Water Policy and Management meeting held in Spanish Fort.

Presentations were given by representatives of the OWR, the Geological Survey of Alabama (GSA), and the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and the results of their combined routine testing indicate there are no significant water shortages in Alabama.  In fact, the GSA representative stated that 70 percent of the geographic area of the state is served by groundwater, and we have more than 550 trillion gallons of groundwater available in Alabama.

During its 2014 session, the Legislature passed a comprehensive law focused on statewide drought planning and management.  Common sense tells us that times of drought present the most significant threat to water users, including business and industry, and water managers in Alabama, so we applaud our lawmakers for addressing this issue proactively.

The management of interstate water resources has also been an issue for years as we compete with neighboring states like Georgia and Florida for its usage.  The amount of water that our sister southeastern states use and the way in which the Corps of Engineers operates the upstream reservoirs have a significant impact on Alabama’s water resources.

Without additional funding forthcoming, The Business Council of Alabama recommends that agencies would be best served to focus available money and efforts on this more immediate threat and leave any changes in our water policy laws for well into the future.

Lastly, we believe that attention must be focused on the skyrocketing water and wastewater costs for consumers in metropolitan areas such as Birmingham.  The cost of water directly affects our economy, job creation, and the simple, bottom line price of conducting business in Alabama.

While the Business Council of Alabama clearly understands the need for sound water management policies, we also know that the adoption of new governing laws is a technically and politically complex undertaking that requires careful analysis and the engaged participation of numerous stakeholders.  For all of the reasons stated above, we feel that the radical changes being pushed by some special interests groups are premature, unwarranted, and unnecessary at the current time. All Alabama citizens and businesses are feeling the effects of overregulation and knee jerk reactions by the federal government.  In Alabama, we should choose to not duplicate these mistakes.  

-Billy Canary

*As published in the March 2015 edition of Business Alabama Magazine

William J. Canary is president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, a statewide business advocacy organization and the exclusive representative in Alabama to the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.