Statewide Efforts to Improve Water Resources Management in Alabama
State agencies and regional stakeholders in Alabama are in the process of creating a state water management plan to ensure sustainable management of Alabama’s water resources in the face of a growing population and increasing climatic variability. State-level actions include the formation of an interagency water-focused working group to lead the development of a state water planning process, an update to the state’s Drought Management Plan, and new cross-agency efforts to increase and consolidate water resources monitoring to inform decision-making. The Alabama Rivers Alliance and other regional stakeholders are simultaneously lobbying for a state water management plan that integrates adaptive management, protects water supply for both natural and human communities, and reflects the values and opinions of Alabama stakeholders.
Alabama faces several water resources challenges that may be exacerbated by an increasing population, economic development, and climatic variability. Although typically viewed as a water-rich state, Alabama has experienced six severe droughts since the 1980s, including a historic drought from 2006-2008. In addition, an increasing regional population is increasing demand for the state’s existing water resources, and Alabama water supply is also affected by interstate water relationships, including reservoir management and water use in Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi. As future shifts in population and climate exacerbate Alabama’s water supply and quality issues, Alabama’s state government must balance water provisioning for both natural and human communities. To respond to these challenges and plan for a sustainable water supply future, both state agencies and nonprofit groups are striving to create and revise state-level water resources policy.
Several policy measures are being addressed via the state government. Periods of extreme drought, and recognition that future drought periods may increase in frequency and intensity, have led the Alabama Office of Water Resources to develop and update Alabama’s Drought Management Plan. Additionally, Gov. Robert Bentley formed the Alabama Water Agencies Working Group in 2011. This multi-agency group has been tasked with helping to assess and improve the management of Alabama’s water resources by developing an action plan and timeline to guide implementation of a state water resources plan.
Alongside these governmental efforts, nonprofit entities such as the Alabama Rivers Alliance (ARA) are lobbying and gathering stakeholder support for a comprehensive, sustainable and adaptive state water management plan. In particular, the Alabama Rivers Alliance wants to: 1) build flexibility into the emerging policy to ensure that state management can respond to variable conditions, 2) encourage inclusive and proactive management of water supply for natural systems, and 3) to integrate and increase stakeholder involvement in the state water management planning process.
Alabama Water Agency Working Group
After taking office in 2011, Gov. Bentley quickly formed the Alabama Water Agency Working Group (AWAWG) and officially formalized the group in early 2012. The AWAWG is comprised of six governmental agencies: the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the Office of the State Climatologist, and the Geological Survey of Alabama. All of these agencies have some management purview in relation to state water resources. In April 2012, the AWAWG was charged by Gov. Bentley to develop a process and recommendations for a State Water Plan. Specifically, the AWAWG was tasked with identifying the issues surrounding state water resources management and, given the realities of water demand and supply, to develop water management strategies for the future.
In late 2012, the AWAWG published a report titled "Water Management Issues in Alabama". This document provides an overview of Alabama’s water resources issues, discusses relevant considerations and needs for each water issue area, and briefly outlines policy options. The report was designed to facilitate water resources discussions between stakeholders and to lay the framework for the development of a state water plan. In addition, the report highlights the need to incorporate land use change, population growth, economic development, hydrologic extremes, and climate change impacts into state water resources planning.
Following this report, the AWAWG engaged with stakeholders and began gathering relevant water resources data. To increase stakeholder buy-in and feedback, the 2012 Water Management Issues in Alabama report was circulated amongst 248 individuals and organizations, as well as presented and discussed at regional meetings and conferences prior to publication. AWAWG members also compiled relevant hydrological data and identified key information gaps that will be critical for informing future water management planning efforts.
Stakeholder input and relevant data were incorporated into a formal AWAWG report published in December 2013, titled "Mapping the Future of Alabama Water Resources Management: Policy Options and Recommendations". This two-part report proposes a process and action plan — known as the Alabama Water MAP (Monitor, Assess, and Plan) — for the creation of a state water management plan, and integrates information generated at all previous stages, including an analysis of and proposed policy options for the 12 different water resources issue areas. It also investigates the intersection of and trends in water supply and demand, and highlights the importance of using science and data to better understand, predict, and manage state water. This report will help guide Alabama forward in creating a comprehensive statewide water management plan.
Office of Water Resources and the Alabama Drought Plan Update
Alabama’s first State Drought Plan was created in 2004 as a result of an earlier executive order process that provided the structure for enhancing state-level communication and coordination during drought periods. Alabama had the opportunity to implement its Drought Plan in 2006-2008 during a historic drought event. Building on its experiences during the 2006-2008 drought, the state is now developing ideas and updates to improve that plan. For example, the Office of Water Resources (OWR) is in the process of developing a more rigorous state-based drought monitor, which will incorporate short- and long-term drought forecasting capabilities in addition to the real-time data provided by the national U.S. Drought Monitor. The forecasting data will be generated from a variety of sources, including trends in water availability, trends and changes in water demand (e.g., population growth or changes in sector use), local climatological conditions, and short- and long-term climate projections. By creating a state-based drought monitor with forecasting capabilities, the OWR hopes to provide water managers and users with a more holistic picture of water supply and risk, which can improve short- and long-term decision-making.
The OWR published a revised version of the Alabama Drought Management Plan in 2013. This revision included a more specific outline of drought triggers, clarified different interagency roles during drought periods, and continued to promote collaboration and communication between water managers and users. In addition, the Alabama Drought Planning and Response Act was signed into law on April 9, 2014, detailing the state government’s role in planning, monitoring, and responding to drought conditions. This act formally establishes the Alabama Drought Assessment and Planning Team (ADAPT) and the Monitoring and Impact Group (MIG), mandates all public water systems within Alabama to create water conservation plans, improves protocols and requirements for reporting local conditions and water supply, and clarifies how the OWR will issue drought declarations. The Alabama Drought Planning and Response Act allows collaborative discussion and development of regulations surrounding drought, and ensures that state-based drought planning procedures can be easily integrated into comprehensive statewide water resources planning.
Alabama Rivers Alliance Water Policy Lobbying
Regional stakeholders, such as the Alabama Rivers Alliance (ARA), are also actively engaged in helping shape state water policy. The ARA is particularly interested in helping the state develop water policies that are adaptive, stakeholder-informed, and that accommodate future variability and incorporate stream flow maintenance and protection parameters. These principles have been derived from continual discussions with many regional stakeholders, as well as from priorities outlined in the Alabama Water Agenda. This Agenda, originally published in 2008, was revised in 2011 based on a survey of over 60 watershed groups. It promotes four high-level systemic issues related to water management: 1) development of state and federal water policy that addresses water quality and quantity, 2) enforcement of water laws that currently exist, 3) adequate funding for water management agencies and activities, and 4) improvement of interagency water management coordination to prevent coverage gaps that could negatively affect water supply or quality.
Parallel to the state’s planning efforts, the ARA has been advocating for instream flow requirements and developing suggested methodologies on how to prioritize and generate streamflow recommendations for vulnerable Alabama basins. The ARA has proposed that the state use the Regulated Riparian Model Water Code (developed by the American Society of Civil Engineers) in developing water policy. This code provides policy options primed for quick state adoption, is tailored to eastern states, and contains policy developed to help states manage water allocations and multijurisdictional water transfers, and to mitigate water use conflicts. It also prioritizes the precautionary principle and adaptive management.
In addition to the adoption of this code, the Alabama Rivers Alliance has also provided guidance on methods for generating streamflow recommendations. Alabama has over 132,000 stream miles, and the ARA recognizes that the state government needs a cost-effective method for generating streamflow requirements. ARA has proposed that the state first should adopt a presumptive streamflow standard to help identify which streams are in most critical need of enhanced management oversight. For example, the state could compare contemporary and historic streamflows, and flag streams that have experienced a 10% or greater hydrological alteration. These impaired streams can then be run through the Ecological Limits of Hydrological Alteration (ELOHA) model. This model helps identify streamflows necessary to maintain critical ecologic function, and provides policy guidance to help achieve river condition maintenance and management goals.
In partnership with several state universities and various stakeholder groups including the Alabama Farmers Federation and the Alabama Chapter of the Sierra Club, the ARA has also led a series of stakeholder Water Symposia meetings to discuss water issues and water science, and to more clearly outline what stakeholders expect from the Alabama state water management plan. These meetings have also been used to brainstorm what adaptive water management may look like under the Riparian Code.
As the planning process moves forward, ARA will transition this effort to a university consortium consisting of the University of Alabama, Auburn University, and Troy University to continue these stakeholder meetings as part of the AWAWG public outreach effort. Continuation of these stakeholder meetings will allow for the integration of stakeholder participation into state-level planning, which will help inform the development of an amenable and resilient state water management plan.
Outcomes and Conclusions
Building upon the AWAWG efforts and the newest Drought Management Plan published in 2018, the state of Alabama plans to continue to investigate and better understand the challenges and risks surrounding water resources management. At the direction of Gov. Bentley, the state convened stakeholders into a series of “focus area panels” to “deliberate key issues and submit reports to the AWAWG” in the areas of 1) Riparian Rights and Other Legal Issues, 2) Instream Flows, 3) Local and Regional Planning, 4) Certificates of Use, Permitting, and Interbasin Transfers, and 5) Water Conservation, Efficiency, and Reuse. ARA is one of many stakeholders participating on these panels, which span the spectrum of water interests in Alabama. At the conclusion of this process, the state hopes to develop informed water policy that is economically and environmentally responsible. Ideally, final state policies will allow for population and economic growth while protecting natural resources, including water quality, flow, and aquatic habitat. In the interim, the state hopes to use its Drought Management Plan to be better prepared and more effectively coordinate water supply issues related to drought conditions.
The AWAWG has stimulated significant activity and dialogue amongst state water agencies. For example, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), Office of Water Resources (OWR), and the Alabama Geological Society (AGS) are working collaboratively to assess the availability, demand, and projected changes for groundwater and surface water in Alabama. By analyzing historical data, trends, and projections regarding water availability and use, this project will hopefully provide a high-resolution view of the state’s water supply, helping inform policy and development of a statewide water management plan. This project may be able to help managers identify where and why water shortages have occurred in the past, and where they are likely to occur in the future (e.g., areas where demand may exceed availability), allowing them to proactively manage and mitigate those situations. Assessing current water supply also lays the foundation for future incorporation of intra- and inter-annual climate variability, which would add another layer of analysis to the larger picture of water supply within the state.
The ARA and other regional stakeholders hope to work with the state to further enhance stakeholder involvement in the state water planning process and to maintain momentum for adaptive policy development. They are continuing to engage key regional players, and are also collecting annual feedback on state water user needs by holding an annual conference. The ARA hopes to bring this information, as well as lessons learned by monitoring other states’ issues and efforts (e.g., Georgia), to decision-makers in order to guide policy development that reflects shifting landscape conditions and needs. Throughout this process, ARA continues its parallel work aimed at improving water pollution policy in the state.
Reynier, W. (2017). Statewide efforts to improve water resources management in Alabama [Case study of a project of the Alabama Office of Water Resources Division, Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, and the Alabama Rivers Alliance]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: http://www.cakex.org/case-studies/statewide-efforts-improve-water-resou… (Last updated December 2017)