Local stakeholders discuss water usage plan

By Donna Thornton/News Editor

The Lake Neely Henry Association met recently at the Southside Community Center, along with local government leaders and other “stakeholders” and representatives of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, to discuss formulating a state water usage plan.

Gov. Robert Bentley charged a group of state agencies, including ADEM, with development of a state water usage plan, in large part, according to discussion at the meeting, so that the state will have better standing in court should questions of water usage from the Coosa River Basin end up before a judge again.

Surrounding states with interest in the issue – Tennessee, Georgia and Florida—have such plans and that could improve their positions in court.

As Sen. Phil Williams told those gathered for the meeting, there is a history of common-law “Riparian rights,” which holds that those upstream cannot withhold water from those downstream.

However, Williams said, it is important that Alabama be able to explain in court what plans the state has for water usage and to be able to explain how taking more water out of the river basin in Georgia will harm the people of Alabama. The harm, as those present outlined it for ADEM representatives Lance LeFleur and Lynn Sisk, would affect people on public and personal .

Reducing the flow of water in the Coosa River as it comes into the Etowah County would be detrimental to water quality – for the ecosystem and for the people who get their water from the Coosa River. That includes customers of the Gadsden Water Works, which supplies not only Gadsden, but sells water to other municipal water systems.

Gadsden Water Works General Manager Frank Eskridge said the number of customers, including those with other cities, is about equal to the population of Etowah County – around 103,000.

The water works is in the process of $30 million in capital improvements in its facilities, something that has caused increases in water rates that will total approximately 40 percent for customers to help with the costs of those improvements, all planned according to the current level of water flow, Eskridge said.

“Gadsden is investing the treasure of its residents,” Eskridge said, in these improvements. He said he believes the water in the Coosa River belongs to the people of Etowah County, and the level of water there affects the quality of water. The public health and safety, Eskridge said, require a safe level of water flow.

With lower water levels, any pollutants that might be in the water, or any naturally occurring organisms would be more concentrated, which can make treating water to make it safe to use or to drink, or treating waste water to go back into the river, more difficult.

“Public health and safety, we believe, should be the highest priority,” Eskridge said.

If public health is the highest priority, there are many others behind it, according to the speakers at the Oct. 25 meeting.
Agriculture is the state’s second largest industry, Williams said, and adequate water supply is essential for irrigation to stabilize crops. Alabama, he said, is one of the nation’s most under-irrigated states.

Greater Gadsden Tourism Director Hugh Stump talked about the huge impact of tourism in Etowah and surrounding counties related to the river. Tourism is the third biggest industry in the state, he said, and last year 184 fishing tournaments came to Etowah County because of the quality of bass fishing in the Coosa. Speaking of just one tournament, that brought 158 two-man fishing teams here from several states, to stay for five or six days, Stump said the conservative estimate is that the tournament had a $200,000 economic impact on the area. Not all the tournaments coming to Gadsden are majors, but all have a positive impact local economics – lodging, dining, shopping, etc. – Stump said.

Development of the Alabama Bass Trail – similar to the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail – will give local tourism another marketing tool to promote fishery along the Coosa River, he said, provided the water level stays adequate to maintain the great bass fishing to be found here.

Weiss Lake Improvement Association President Carolyn Landrum talked about tourism and keeping fishing safe in Cherokee County, often called the “crappie capitol of the world.”

“When bass fishermen catch a big fish,” Landrum said, “they throw it back in. When people catch crappie, they eat it.” She said Weiss Lake had already been under a PCB warning this year limiting the number of times people should consume fish caught in the lake.

Lower flow in a body of water means a higher concentration of any kind of pollutant, such as the PCBs that made the warning on Weiss Lake necessary.

Another issue in water quality, Gene Phifer, who retired from performing water quality studies in industry and for universities, said, is the nutrient load. If water flow is reduced, the nutrient level in reservoirs increases and can cause an increase in phytoplankton. The resulting increase in algae – and the decomposition of that algae – is linked to lower dissolved oxygen levels in water, Phifer said, which has a negative impact on the ecosystem. Decreased water flow can cause major changes in the pH level of water, which can harm hatchlings.

“We’re not in great shape anyway,” Phifer said. “You start taking water out of the ecosystem  … it will really have an impact on fishery and other issues.”

U.S. Coast Guard Commander Bill Hayes said public safety on the water is an issue, too. The average depth in Weiss Lake is two feet, he said. There are some markers there to caution boaters and some on other bodies of water, but not enough to warn of the “tremendous possibility of public safety issues is water levels are lowered.”

Speakers also addressed the economic impact on individual property owners if water levels drop and one’s water front home because a “mud-front” home, and the need to be able to ensure industrial prospects that an adequate water supply will be available.
Written versions of the comments from the Oct. 25 meeting were to be submitted to ADEM and collected along with comments from other stakeholders in other parts of the state as part of the development of the state water use plan.

The process, LeFleur said, is starting from scratch. While ADEM exists to deal govern water quality, there is no agency to regulate water quantity, he said.

LeFleur stressed the importance of a statewide water use plan, developed by consensus. Any legislative work, he said, needs to be done holistically, not piecemeal. LeFleur said there are some stakeholders who don’t want any change, and some of them are good at talking to state legislators.

Riparian law works fine, LeFleur said, as long as there is plenty of water to go around. But the supply is finite, he said, and demand will exceed it. Alabama needs to be prepared to argue for its water needs with more than common law to support its side of the issue.

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