The concept of value can be tricky, particularly when it comes to natural resources. When people are asked what they value, the typical responses are things like family, friends, God, health or happiness. Our behavior tends to reflect our values, and we seek to protect the things we hold dear.
Water is something necessary for every life, and if we do not understand the true value of our precious water resources, we cannot adequately protect them.
However, value from a societal standpoint tends to focus on material goods or services upon which a monetary amount has been assigned. In order to protect our societal "values," we generally translate them into laws, policies or unwritten behavioral standards.
Through what lens do we in Alabama view water-as a societal or individual value-and how does that view inform our methods of protection?
Science teaches us that over 70 percent of the planet is covered with water. Water is technically a renewable resource. The amount of water available on earth does not change due to rain, snow, evaporation and other natural features of the "water cycle."
However, less than one percent of the world's freshwater is available for human uses. Humans can have an effect on the amount available for our use. According to author and water rights expert Maude Barlow in her book, Blue Covenant, "Unless we change our ways, by the year 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will face water scarcity."
A statistic like that is hard to believe when you live in Alabama, a state that receives 30 inches of rain during severe drought years and much more than that in normal years, but it should open our eyes to that fact that we are living in a global hotspot for freshwater resources.
Unfortunately, Alabama currently has no system of regulating water withdrawals and no water management plan to ensure the protection and sustainability of our water resources for present and future generations. Additionally, our current practice of polluting our waterways is further degrading the precious freshwater supplies that we have. These actions and inactions show that, as a society, we in Alabama have placed little value on our previous water resources.
But are we doing a better job at valuing water from the individual perspective?
According to the United States Geological Survey, Alabama's per capita water use for public supply in 1995 was 191 gallons per day, while the U.S. average was only 151 gallons per day. In 2005, Alabama's average per capita water use for public supply increased to about 198 gallons per day.
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These numbers put Alabama above the national average for water use and show a steadily increasing demand for water. Alabama currently has no statewide water efficiency guidelines or incentives and few, if any, local water utilities across the state are implementing serious water efficiency and conservation programs.
We do not seem to be placing much value either as individuals or as a society on one of the most life sustaining and increasingly scarce resources on earth: water.
That's where the Alabama Rivers Alliance (ARA) and our many local river organization partners come in. We are all working to encourage our state agencies and leaders to better protect this precious resource.
In recent years, the issue of a long-term water management plan has caught the attention of our state legislature. In 2007, the legislature formed a Permanent Joint Legislative Committee on Water Policy and Management. This committee is charged with developing a statewide water management plan for Alabama.
This plan can have positive impacts on the protection and sustainability of our future water supplies if developed and implemented correctly. The Committee has been holding meetings for the past two years to hear from various stakeholders and experts about the complex details of statewide water policy.
The vice-chair of the committee, Representative Greg Canfield (R, District 48), is from the Greater Birmingham area. Canfield has shown strong leadership throughout the past two years and an aptitude for understanding complex water policy issues.
The ARA and other concerned citizens have participated in all of these meetings and are hopeful about the progress being made, but it is essential that all of our state legislators, including the members of this important committee, hear from the citizens of Alabama that we value our water and want it protected. All citizens of Alabama can and should be part of this process.
There will be an amazing opportunity to meet your legislators and learn more about this water planning process as well as many other important water issues at the ARA's first annual "Alabama Water Rally" to be held Feb. 27-Mar. 2, 2010, in Montgomery. To learn more, visit www.alabamarivers.org.
If global scarcity predictions hold true, we may one day find ourselves in catastrophic "water wars" that will dwarf the current struggles we are experiencing with our neighbors in Georgia and Florida. The time is now to place a higher societal and individual value on water and create the policies that will protect this valuable resource that is so essential for our survival.