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Alabama's Water War and Politics

All year long on Alabama Public Radio, we’re been looking at water. In other words, we’ve been examining the condition of our water supply and the health of our rivers.   Politics is playing a big role in the state of our water, not only in Alabama but some of the surrounding states.  This has led to a new approach to manage water and help people who been hurt in the water war.

It’s 5:30 in the morning at the East Point Working Waterfront in Apalachicola, Florida. 

“Get my gas, get my ice, get my few drinks and then I head out to Cat Point and find a few oysters to catch,” Duane Topham says.

Topham is getting ready to hit the water. Business used to be good.  At one point, Topham was catching 30 bags of fresh water oysters.  Not now

“Three bags.  Three, sixty-pound bushels when we used to catch 30 sixty pound bushels.  I’m losing every damn thing I’ve got.  Ha… But Captain goes down with the ship though.”

Topham and other fresh water oyster farmers say they’re the victims of an ongoing war between Alabama, Georgia and Florida.  The three states have been fighting over The Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River system for 25 years. They cannot decide on how to share the water.

“We got involved in it because we felt like there was a better way to manage it so we had a consistent flow of water coming down the river,” Betty Webb says. 

That’s Betty Webb.  The Chair of the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee Flint Stakeholders group.  She along with 55 other members from the three states decided to take matters in to their own hands.

“They decided to try to get this organization together of these members throughout the basin to come together and try to do a negotiated effort to figure out the best way for everyone to share the water that we have available.”  

The committee includes people who depend on river water, like developers, utilities, and the tourism and fishing industries. The general idea is, everyone gets a vote on how to use the water and everyone gets a veto. Webb says every need is important to all three states.  And it’s also critical that all three get the water they need to keep their economies thriving.

“Alabama is one of the ones who’s really suffering because we need it to be consistent.  We need to figure out how to keep it as consistent as possible,” Webb says.

Basically, Webb’s complaint is that state government isn’t getting the job done. For the oyster fishermen, the water flowing into Apalachicola Bay needs to be managed. Too much river pollution or too much storm water runoff can kill the oyster beds. For environmentalists, the problem goes beyond squabbles between the governors of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida…

In Montgomery at the Alabama Department of Emergency Management office, concerned citizens and riverkeepers attend the triennial review of Water Quality Standards.

“We don’t want Alabama to turn in to a California where there are conflicts over water,” Mitch Reid says.

That’s Mitch Reid, the program director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance. 

“We have too much of this God-Given resource for us to squander it without having good policy,” Reid says.

Reid is part of an organization to help keep the state’s river’s healthy and thriving.  His gripe today is on the lack of water management at the state level, and he’s no fan of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management…

“There are real problems with Sewage Treatment plants in Alabama,” Reid says.  “We have 284 plants in the state and only 19 have been in full compliance over the last three years.”

Reid considers ADEM the poster child for Alabama’s political water problems. But, not everybody sees it that way.

“We do not have regulatory authority over water quantity except to the degree that reduced flows may impact water quality,” Lance LeFluer says.

LeFleur is the head of Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management. Environmentalists often paint the agency as the bad guy in Alabama’s water woes. LeFleur feels like he’s caught in the middle. The big complaint is a lack of money to do his job.

“If we are to maintain our level of service and our workload, then we have to make up for that funding that’s been reduced by some other form and the only form available to us is our permit fees that the regulated industries pay.”

The agency has increased permit fees for industries twice. It could likely go higher for the third straight year.  Officials are going to ask for an increase of 20 percent at a meeting later this year. That’s on top of a fifty percent hike two years ago.  The Alabama legislature added to the drama this year with a proposal to zero out funding for LeFleur’s agency. And so, it goes on.

“We need that water.” 

Back in Apalachicola, oyster fisherman Horace Harris feels like he’s caught in the political tug of war.

“We’re not asking for it to make our water look pretty,” Harris says.  “We’re asking for it to make our oysters produce better.  So we can have a harvest so that when y’all want to sit down and watch the Florida and Georgia game and east some Apalachicola Oysters, thank me for one.”

And the haggling goes on over the Chattahoochee River.  Residents of Georgia drink the water from it. Alabama gets electric power from it. And for people like Horace Harris, it’s all about the seafood.

“You need me to go to your gas pumps,” Harris says.  “You know what I’m saying? You need me to go out there.  You need me.  If I go out there and make $500, guess what?  You need me to make (Expletive) dime of it.”

Time appears running out this year for Harris to make his living in Florida’s oyster beds. 

For APR News… I’m MacKenzie Bates in Apalachicola.

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