From that day to now, Alabama’s streams and rivers have shaped its history — as well they should.
Alabama has more streams and rivers than 44 states. It has 77,000 miles of waterway. And with them come great groundwater reserves.
Unfortunately, we don’t know the size of those reserves. A comprehensive survey of what Alabama has and what condition it is in has never been accomplished. Not even the tri-state water war with Georgia and Florida has moved Alabama to survey its water resources, much less lay out a plan to manage those resources for the future.
Today, Alabama is right down at the bottom of spending per capita on water protection because, as politicians are fond of telling us, Alabama doesn’t have the money to spend.
However, as economists and tax reformers tell us, Alabama is a cheap state. Those who have the resources to support a water policy have blocked any attempts to change the tax code and bring in the revenue needed.
Alabama also is a state where powerful industrial interests make water protection difficult.
In the 1990s, fair-minded legislators proposed the “Fisherman’s Right to Know” bill. It simply said that industries should post a sign that says what they are legally dumping into streams. The point was that folks who fish should know what those fish are swimming in. But someone noted that this would reveal how many dangerous substances the state was allowing to be put in the water. Polluting industries did not want that information public. They killed the bill.
Now two groups — the Alabama Rivers Alliances and the Southern Environmental Law Center — have drafted an Alabama Water Agenda that updates water-protection laws, tightens anti-pollution laws and toughens penalties for violators.
Legislators should study this plan and act on its recommendations, but they probably won’t because central to the plan is the necessity for the state to better fund the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which has not had a budget increase since the 1990s.
This failure to adequately fund the agency led to a lack of inspections and enforcement that almost caused the federal Environmental Protection Agency to revoke ADEM’s authority to carry out the Clean Water Act.
Some have suggested that water protection would be better funded if the fines levied on polluters went into ADEM’s budget rather than the General Fund. That would surely help, but the General Fund is starved as well, so the state would be starving Peter to pay Paul — which would be historically consistent but bad public policy.
The sad fact is Alabama’s leaders would rather waste one of our greatest resources than address the real reasons the state can’t protect what it has. Alabama has the sources of revenue. The leaders lack the resolve to draw on them.
And that makes the polluters happy.