Alabama grapples with water use, planning affecting Florida



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.”


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.


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.”

An Alabama state official responded after deadline for this story that Alabama’s water use in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin does not affect Florida. (To view the complete response, click here.)


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 Please do not copy, forward or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from