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Alabama grapples with water use, planning affecting Florida

Thu, Jul 24, 2014

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By BRUCE RITCHIE

FLORIDAENVIRONMENTS.COM

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A flotilla of about 70 red, green, orange a blue kayaks and canoes drifted down the Alabama River, providing a colorful contrast against the gray capital city and overcast skies.

Kayaks pass a paddleboat docked along the Alabama River in Montgomery.

Kayaks pass a paddleboat docked along the Alabama River in Montgomery.

Alabama depends on water flowing from Georgia to feed some of its rivers just as Florida does with its Apalachicola River, which flows through Alabama and Georgia on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

But unlike Florida, Alabama is just getting started with creating a government framework to manage its water and identify its needs for water from upstream Georgia, said Mitch Reid, program director for the Alabama Rivers Alliance.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley in April released a report with recommendations by state agencies that included development and implementation of a statewide water plan.

The plan actually shows how far Alabama is behind Florida in water planning, Reid said. His group launched a campaign called “Defend Alabama Rivers” which includes support for the state planning initiative and the kayaking event on July 18 in Montgomery on the Alabama River.

“Currently Alabama doesn’t have a water management plan,” Reid said. He said Alabama’s water use regulation still relies on riparian water law giving priority to landowners with water access rather than a system of management and regulations.

“Most people are aware that we have conflicts with Georgia. Georgia developed a water management plan in 2008. The state of Florida, which has really driven the train in the water wars in protecting Apalachicola Bay, they developed a water management plan back in the 1970s. So Alabama is really late to the game on this.”

THE ‘WATER WARS’

Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been battling in the federal courts since 1990 over water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.

Alabama and Georgia want water for industry and cities while Florida wants water to maintain the seafood industry in Apalachicola Bay.

But a water management plan in Alabama may affect more than just the Apalachicola River. The Choctahatchee, Escambia, Yellow and Blackwater rivers in western Florida also begin in Alabama on their way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Mitch Reid of the Alabama Rivers Alliance.

Mitch Reid of the Alabama Rivers Alliance.

On Oct. 1, 2013, Florida sued Georgia in the U. S. Supreme Court to request a water-sharing plan for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.

Alabama has remained on the sidelines in that legal dispute.

“The problem for the state of Alabama is we don’t have a water management program,” Reid said as kayakers on the Alabama River passed a replica paddleboat that was docked in Montgomery. “For us to participate in this current debate about water use, we are at a significant disadvantage.

DOWN ON THE RIVER

Water flows from Georgia through the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers, which join east of Montgomery to form the Alabama River. Last October, an attorney representing Alabama blasted Georgia for taking more than its fair share of water from the river system, according to The Anniston Star.

Reid says Alabama has “ridden the coattails of Florida” in the other water dispute with Georgia.

“We (in Alabama) essentially have to get our own house in order, develop a water management plan, understand what our uses and our what internal resources are before we can go back and argue that the state of Georgia is using too much water,” he said.

Sam Fowler, director of the Auburn University Water Resources Center, said he doesn’t disagree with Reid’s comments.

“I think Alabama is trying to catch up from not having developed a comprehensive, well-defined water management plan in the past,” he said.

“Some of the states do have water management plans that are probably better documents,” Fowler said. “Whether they are better enforced I don’t know. Having a plan is one thing. Enforcing a plan is something else.”

BENEFITTING FLORIDA AND OTHER DOWNSTREAM WATER USERS

Reid said good water planning in Alabama can’t help but benefit Florida as well as various downstream user groups and the environment in Alabama.

“If we do a better job in Alabama of managing our water resources, protecting the resource and making sure the river is healthy, then that will benefit Florida.”

(Photos and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Floridaenvironments.com. Please do not copy, forward or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from bruceBritchie@gmail.com).

District staff urges denial of controversial ranch water request

Tue, Jul 15, 2014

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State officials are recommending denial of a requested water use permit for a cattle ranch in Marion County whose application in 2011 prompted a political campaign on behalf of Florida’s springs.

Sleepy Creek Ranch The St. Johns River Water Management District staff says the application by Sleepy Creek Lands for 1.12 million in new pumping, combined with exiting permitted water uses in the region, represents a threat to Silver Springs in Ocala.

But another permit involving Sleepy Creek Lands, formerly Adena Springs Ranch, for 1.46 million gallons of existing permitted water use was recommended for approval in May but faces a legal challenge.

In 2011, billionaire Frank Stronach’s 30,000-acre Adena Springs Ranch in Marion County applied to the St. Johns River Water Management District for a permit to use up to 13.2 million gallons of water daily. The proposal to produce grass-fed beef follows a nationwide diet trend for some health-conscious and green-friendly consumers.

The water request touched off a firestorm of protests including a 2012 rally in Ocala led by former U. S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Miami Lakes. Environmental groups presented petitions they said were signed by 15,000 calling for protection of Silver and Rainbow springs in Marion County.

Springs legislation passed the Florida Senate in April but wasn’t heard by the House before the 2014 legislative session ended.

Stronach’s request later was reduced from 13.2 million gallons to nearly 2.6 million gallons per day, according to the district.

The St. Johns River Water Management District said the requested additional pumping of 1.12 million gallons per day, combined with permits already issued, could lead to less flooding of Silver Springs and the Silver River 12 miles away. Less water would cause the floodplain to dry out while reducing fish habitat and the uptake of nutrients, such as nitrogen.

The district staff recommendation to deny could go before the governing board at its Aug. 12 meeting in Palatka.

Sleepy Creek Lands issued a statement saying that the staff report actually backs the company and that a permit would have been issued except for “newly adopted methodology” for analyzing the request.

“This staff finding doesn’t just impact Sleepy Creek Lands but impacts every water user in the area including all of the residents of the city of Ocala who are now faced with how the District proposes to deal with such an over-permitted situation,” the company statement concluded.

The St. Johns River Water Management District staff in May recommended approval of the nearly 1.5 million gallons of water use currently permitted along with modifications, including moving some pumping the north.

That request is being challenged by Sierra Club Florida, the St. Johns Riverkeeper and individuals Karen Ahlers and Jeri Baldwin, with a hearing scheduled for late August. They said a hearing is needed to determine whether springs and waterways are being protected from over-pumping and pollution.

John R. Thomas, an attorney representing Ahlers and Baldwin, said the company and agency are working together to defend the challenge so the recommended denial now “smells fishy.”

“By outward appearance, it looks like St. Johns is doing the right thing denying the second modification,” Thomas said. “We agree and laud the denial. However, the situation is very unusual.”

(Map is from the St. Johns River Water Management District web site. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Floridaenvironments.com. Do not republish, copy or forward without permission, which can be obtained from bruceBritchie@gmail.com .)

One river system — with varying efforts to save it

Thu, Jun 26, 2014

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By BRUCE RITCHIE

FLORIDAENVIRONMENTS.COM

EUFAULA, Ala. — The Chattahoochee River is a single stream flowing towards Florida. But there were two very different activities going on this week that showed the contrasting ways in which people and institutions can deal with a water issue.

Participants in Paddle Georgia 2014 follow the Chattahoochee River into metro Atlanta.

Participants in Paddle Georgia 2014 follow the Chattahoochee River into metro Atlanta.

Along the banks of Lake Eufaula, created by a dam across the Chattahoochee River, representatives of groups, utilities and industries along the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system were grappling with how to write and implement a sustainable water use plan for the river system.

Further upstream in Atlanta, participants in Paddle Georgia 2014 were learning about the history and many uses of the river while making new friends and having a good time outdoors.

“Our hope is to give them an interest in the issues,” said Joe Cook, a Paddle Georgia 2014 organizer. “So if they see something in the newspaper that says Chattahoochee River or Flint River, they’ll pay attention to it.”

Last October, Florida Gov. Rick Scott asked the U. S. Supreme Court to set an allocation for sharing water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.

Scott said Georgia’s refusal to share water threatened generations of Florida families that depend on Apalachicola Bay for fishing. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal responded that the lawsuit was “frivolous” and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed the federal Water Resource Development Act (WRDA) that included language urging the governors among the states to work out their differences so that federal reservoir operations are not affected.

In Eufaula, more than 40 members of groups representing businesses, water utilities, agriculture and environmentalists were meeting — mostly in closed executive session — to develop a plan they hope the governors and the public will support this fall.

“I feel like we’re working towards what’s in that (federal) WRDA bill, which is a three-state agreement,” said Jim McClatchey during the meeting ACF Stakeholders group that he chairs. “We’ve got to get the governors to buy into our plan once we have a plan.”

He is CEO of Southern Aluminum Finishing Co. in Atlanta.

Group members heard about options during a 3-1/2 hour public meeting for creating a new group, called a trans-boundary water management institution, that could be needed once a plan is recommended.

Laurie Fowler of the University of Georgia speaks to the ACF Stakeholders group in Eufaula, Ala.

Laurie Fowler of the University of Georgia speaks to the ACF Stakeholders group in Eufaula, Ala.

Such an institution could serve as a data clearinghouse, work on consensus-building and conflict resolution and deal with water management planning including water conservation and drought membership, said Laurie Fowler of the University of Georgia School of Law.

No decision on the proposal was expected this week, McClatchey said.

Further upstream, in Atlanta, the legal dispute and policy wrangling were more distant for the Paddle Georgia participants.

On Monday, they paddled past mansions in Atlanta, under interstate highway bridges and through the scenic Chattahoochee National Recreation Area before passing the Atlanta drinking water supply plant, a sewage discharge plant and other industrial plants on the city’s southwest side.

Joe Cook, organizer of Paddle Georgia 2014.

Joe Cook, organizer of Paddle Georgia 2014.

The main experience for participants is developing a relationship with the Chattahoochee River, Cook said. He is co-author with his wife, Monica, of “River Song,” a beautiful photographic book recording their trip in 1995 down the Chattahoochee from the Georgia mountains to Florida, where they continued on the Apalachicola River to the Gulf of Mexico.

“Basically it’s like any relationship you have,” Cook said. “If you want to have a decent relationship with something, you’ve got to spend time with that person or whatever it is.

“So the idea with this is if you spend time with a river, you’re going build a relationship with a river. Then you’ll be more interested in taking care of it.”

(Story and photos copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Floridaenvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from bruceBritchie@gmail.com.)

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