Alabama Should Avoid Water Hazards the Right Way

A version of this editorial was published on the on May 5, 2016. Click here to read the article on


Alabama Should Avoid Water Hazards the Right Way
By: Mitch Reid, Program Director


Growing up in the Wiregrass, Sundays revolved around three constants in my life: Sunday School, tea made from the “best water in the world”, and the PGA. After church, we would gather for a lunch that my mom had spent all morning making and, no matter what we had, it would always be paired with a bottomless glass of iced tea brewed in the sun with water from our family’s farm well. I swear that water was the key to the perfect glass of tea. After lunch we were free to roam and play at will, but the T.V. was reserved exclusively for the final round of whichever PGA tournament was on. I distinctly remember watching Tom Kite battle the legends of golf up and down the fairways of the world with his gigantic glasses and unerring pitches. It always amazed me that a man that was legally blind without glasses could so precisely play the game.

Years later I heard a quote of Tom’s that has stuck with me: “You can always find a distraction if you’re looking for one”. Perhaps it was the need for assistance that helped Mr. Kite push away the many distractions that surrounded him and focus in so keenly on the shot at hand. This need to manage distractions transcends the game of golf and is informative to the leadership of our state.

When I think back to those Sunday afternoons in Bellwood, Alabama, the one thing that we most took for granted was that water. It was abundant, clean and free. We turned on the tap and there it was. Over time, as we used more of it, and as our neighbors expanded irrigation, we had to dig down deeper and spend a little more to pump it up but it was still there. It wasn’t until I returned home from a tour in Afghanistan that I realized just how precious this resource was. And, it wasn’t until wells began to come up short that people in the Wiregrass really starting talking about managing this limited resource. These were things we never even considered back when Tom was battling the “Golden Bear” at Bay Hill.

Today in Alabama we have an awful lot of distractions that are disrupting our game. There are very few days where there is not a new shiny scandal in Montgomery competing for our attention. It has reached the point where our politics seem geared more towards responding to and managing distractions than the actual jobs in which our leaders were elected. Even those items that get discussed at length seem disconnected from the actual problems facing the people of Alabama. And perhaps they can be forgiven given the incessant clambering of the media to tweet the next scandalous dalliance or facebook the latest misadventure that may reach the level of national satire.

But the thing is: there are real problems facing Alabama and now we need real leadership to navigate the many hazards between where we lie and where we want to be. In regards to our water, we have found ourselves way off par and deep in the rough of an antiquated system. More importantly, we lack the tools needed to get us back on course. Our water resources are increasingly under stress both from our overuse of the resources and from the changes we have made to the systems. These stresses will only increase in the future as we expand our cities and put more of our water towards growing food and fiber here in Alabama. Our shared rivers are already struggling under this strain.

This year, on Rivers of Alabama Day no less, two of Alabama’s shared rivers were named as Most Endangered Rivers in the United States by American Rivers, a national organization dedicated to the protection, restoration and stewardship of all of our nation’s rivers. The Pascagoula in southwest Alabama is under threat from dams in Mississippi and the Chattahoochee on our eastern border has reached a breaking point because of historic mismanagement at both the state and federal level. The Chattahoochee River, along with the Flint and Apalachicola Rivers, is a nationally important water resource that is absolutely critical to the people and economies of Alabama, Florida and Georgia. This river is also at the center of a “Water War” that has now spanned decades.

The ACF is at a crossroads: either the three states will come together and agree to the sustainable — and joint — management of the river or the U.S. Supreme Court, through a special master, will divide the waters by decree. This latter option certainly has far-reaching consequences for all stakeholders but, without a state water plan, Alabama may find itself failing to make the cut.

Georgia and Florida have both done their homework and have developed comprehensive water management plans for their respective state waters. Alabama, on the other hand, is stillin the planning process. While our neighbors are negotiating for the amounts of water called for under their plans, our Alabama legislature proved incapable of even defining the major water basins of the state. When Senator Arthur Orr from Hartselle, Alabama, and co-chair of the state’s “Water Committee”, attempted this lay up in anticipation of a more comprehensive plan he was forced to pull his own bill due to the state’s special interest mules’ fear of water management. This is no way to protect our state’s water.

Without the right tools in the bag, Alabama will not be able to address the ongoing and increasing challenges that we face, nor can we meaningfully engage with our neighbors to participate in the protection of our shared resources. Sadly, all of these events transpired while our leaders and politicos were busy being distracted by Wanda’s desk or felony ethics charges. I admit to being pulled in by these distractions too. On one hand they are part of an important dialogue that we in Alabama must have about our government and our expectations of those who would lead it. But it is critical that we remember that these issues, even while they are important, are still distracting us from the important day to day business of providing for the people of Alabama and the environment in which we live, work and play.

This, more than anything else, is where our leadership has failed us.

In the December 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Daniel Goleman described the “focused leader” as one who can simultaneously focus inwardly, on those around her, and on the wider world. The effective leader must exercise self-awareness and self-control while being empathetic to those around her and building the relationships necessary to address common goals. She must also remain cognizant of the changing world and be intentionally strategic in her approach to near term and future challenges. It is easy to draw a parallel to the need for more focused leadership in Alabama’s water planning efforts. As a state, Alabama has not been very successful in this and we too often compound our challenges with anxiety.

Now more than ever, Alabama must focus inward and develop a sustainable water management plan for our state’s water resources while at the same time focus on our neighbors to understand how their needs fit with ours and engage in truly joint management of our shared waters.

Finally, we must extend our attention more globally to understand how our water plan will address the certainty of future changes -only with strategic foresight and built in adaptability will our water plan meet the needs of future use in a globally changing climate.

Central to being successful in this effort is focus. As Goleman reminds us, the successful leader will “weed out” the distractions and remain attentive amidst setbacks. At the state level, we know the issues associated with managing our water resources and they are legion. This can seem at times both overwhelming in its complexity and out of focus because we are experiencing an interlude of ample rainfall. This is when distractions become easy to give in to and we find ourselves chasing white rabbits no matter where they lead. But now is precisely the time to re-focus our attention on the issues of water planning so that we can navigate the course we are on and meet the challenges head on. Which reminds me of another quote, this time from the Golden Bear himself, Jack Nicklaus: “Concentration is a fine anecdote to anxiety”.

Mitch Reid serves as program director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance.