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State legislators look at water issues

State legislatures are currently in session in many Southeastern states, and considering that some parts of the region remain in a prolonged drought, water issues are predictably front and center.

In Georgia, the sj19 tate House and Senate have passed the Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Plan by wide margins, with the Georgia Farm Bureau supporting the measure. “Passage of the Water Plan was the culmination of three years of work by thousands of people all over Georgia,” according to a statement by the Farm Bureau. “Hundreds of Farm Bureau members were active in the process attending public meetings and offering comments on behalf of Georgia farmers. The Water Plan is a reflection of that work, and it is consistent with Georgia Farm Bureau policy.

The Georgia Farm Bureau had called for stakeholder input and having Farm Bureau representatives on boards and councils as the water plan was being negotiated.

“During this process, GFB nominees were appointed to every basin advisory committee and the statewide advisory committee,” states the Farm Bureau. “The plan's regional water councils will consist of stakeholders who live in the affected basins. Georgia Farm Bureau policy supports Georgia's regulated riparian system of water law and so does this plan. Our policy affirms agriculture's water use priority as second only to human consumption during times of emergency and so does this plan. Our organization calls for reasonable limitations on inter-basin and intra-basin transfers of water and so does this plan. Farm Bureau policy endorses greater efforts to increase water supply through reservoirs and other means and so does this plan.”

Other Farm Bureau concerns not in policy also were largely addressed by the Water Council in its final draft. For example, the organization believed the concentration of authority with the director of the Environmental Protection Division was a problem. However, the final plan disperses much of that authority and requires consultation with the Department of Agriculture on some issues.

Some of these same issues — water policy, immigration reform and renewable energy incentives — are being discussed by the Alabama Legislature during the current term.

Paul Pinyan, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation's Governmental Affairs Department, says the record-setting drought of 2007 has amplified discussions about a statewide water management plan.

“There is renewed interest among legislators to pass bills ranging from safe dam legislation to water use permitting,” says Pinyan. “The Federation will be monitoring all such bills and is already working with its members as well as other agricultural groups to develop recommendations that would ensure farming is given a high priority in state water policy.”

In December, Federation President Jerry A. Newby appointed a 15-member Water Resource Planning Committee to study agriculture's water needs. That group will also meet with university scientists, state and federal agencies and other agricultural stakeholders to develop strategies to better utilize Alabama's water resources.

Meanwhile, legislation passed last year exempting agriculture from Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration intrastate commerce regulations is expected to be back on the table as lawmakers and regulators write enforcement guidelines. Pinyan says maintaining the agriculture exemption will be a priority for the Federation this year as it works with the Legislature and state agencies to implement the new law while maintaining current funding levels.

Other priorities for the Federation will include state immigration laws and renewable energy incentives. The Joint Interim Patriotic Immigration Commission, which includes four Alabama farmers, was expected to present its report to the Legislature, governor and members of Alabama's congressional delegation during the first week of the session.

Throughout the fall and winter, Federation members have testified before the commission at public hearings regarding the need to strengthen border security while providing an adequate, legal labor force for agricultural jobs. During the session, the Federation says it will be closely monitoring all immigration bills, particularly those that could usurp federal immigration enforcement authority or that would be punitive toward farm owners and operators who employ migrant workers.

On the renewable energy front, the Permanent Joint Legislative Committee on Energy kicked off its legislative agenda on Jan. 22 with an Alabama Energy Day at the state capital. Pinyan says Federation staff have been involved in the committee meetings and will continue to push for farm-to-fuel incentives during the legislative session.

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