Commission backs Riley’s water policy efforts, wants dams checked

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Commissioners on a water resources panel said Wednesday they are confident in Gov. Bob Riley’s performance in the long-running water wars, but called on him to use the situation as an impetus for creating a statewide water usage plan.

Alabama has been locked in the water wrangling since 1990, when Florida and Alabama sued Georgia, saying that state was trying to take too much water from the Chattahoochee River for use in the Atlanta area.

Members of the Alabama Water Resources Commission said Riley has put up a good fight in meetings with the Army Corps of Engineers and other water war players in recent months, but pushed for more.

This is an opportunity to ‘‘enhance laws, policies and procedures relating to use and management of Alabama’s resources,’’ committee member Leonard Ingram said in reading a resolution that was adopted at Wednesday’s meeting.

The 19-member commission is selected by the governor, lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House of Representatives and provides various agencies with guidance on water issues. The membership includes representatives from each congressional district and each of the state’s major surface water regions.

The current drought being experienced throughout much of the South has intensified both the water fight and the need for Alabama officials to know how much water the state has and for a plan on what to do if the water supply dries up.

Adam Snyder, executive director of Conservation Alabama, said responsibility for coming up with the plan has been ferrying back-and-forth between the governor and the water commission in the past.

‘‘The governor’s reaction has been sending it to the Alabama Water Resources Commission, so somebody needs to take leadership and I feel strongly that it has to come from the Legislature,’’ he said. ‘‘(Riley’s) not doing anything as far as a statewide water program that I know of.

‘‘Statewide leadership is going to have to come from the governor and short of that from the Legislature,’’ he said.

Todd Stacy, a deputy press secretary for Riley, said the plan is in its early stages and the governor is in talks with agencies to be involved in coming up with the plan.

‘‘I don’t think anybody’s arguing that we need it, but it’s got to be comprehensive,’’ Stacy said. ‘‘It involves a lot of things — not just conservation. Gov. Riley believes we should have it, but it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.’’

The commission also passed a resolution about the need for a statewide dam safety program, saying they hope planned legislation will rid Alabama of the shameful designation of being the only state that doesn’t inspect its dams.

A recent study showed there are approximately 10,100 dams in Alabama, said Leslie Durham, a branch chief at the Alabama Office of Water Resources.

She said only about 4,000 to 5,000 of the dams would meet the criteria — including size and storage volume — to be inspected, but the state still doesn’t have any idea about their conditions.

Brian Atkins, division director of the Office of Water Resources, said legislation is needed to start the inventory because the project could take additional funding.

Durham said a bill to start regulating dams failed to pass a legislative committee in 2002 and the legislation that will be submitted in the upcoming session has been watered down somewhat to start the process more slowly.

‘‘We’re looking at this as a first step,’’ she said.

According to the National Inventory of Dams, Alabama has 215 dams that are considered ‘‘High Hazard,’’ meaning there would probably be loss of human life if they failed or were operated improperly.

Snyder said the state can’t afford to put the problem on a back burner.

‘‘That is a huge safety issue and I think every elected official in this state would be very concerned if a dam in their community happened to break and people lost their lives,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s got to be a political priority.’’