Environmentalists are optimistic that progress will be made on water resource issues and the state’s climate change preparedness under the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden and the upcoming Congress, particularly because the president-elect indicates that economic gains go hand in hand with environmental protection.
“It’s really exciting to see the Biden administration putting jobs in the same conversation with their climate and environmental policies, because for too long there’s been this false argument that jobs and the environment don’t go together. — that you can’t have a regulated business sector and create jobs,” said Cindy Lowry, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance.
On a recent post-election call with other advocates, Lowry said the current political outlook reinforces the importance of the vote. There have been some steps forward for conservation during Donald Trump’s presidency, she said, such as the president’s signing of the Great American Outdoors Act in August, but the administration put industry interests first.
Under new leadership, a plan to preserve clean water and equitable access to it could be within reach in Alabama.
“We’ve spent so much time and energy as a movement trying to defend and hold the line against so many setbacks, and now we can focus on advancing certain areas,” Lowry said.
Julian Gonzalez, a clean water advocate with the non-profit organization Earthjustice in Washington DC, said on the call that the next Congress will be the “most environmentally friendly Congress we’ve had. had”. Yet the real work remains.
“Everything should be a conversation, and you should be able to call your congressman and say, ‘How are you going to solve the water problem in the United States?’ and they should have an answer, but right now they don’t,” Gonzalez said.
For Alabama water advocates, the priorities are what to do with coal ash, how to prepare for droughts and floods, improve water and wastewater infrastructure, and bring relief to communities affected by environmental degradation.
While coal ash production has declined due primarily to market-driven declines in coal combustion, enough facilities still use it that Alabama is developing its own licensing process and regulations. to store it. The Biden administration can show leadership on the issue, Lowry said.
While many people associate water issues with drought, Lowry said the topic encompasses much more than that. Pipes that contain lead must be replaced. There is plenty of water, she said, but the state needs a comprehensive water body that prepares communities for drought management, especially as more farmers use irrigation, which uses more water.
His organization is working on a state plan that can ensure equitable access to water without depleting the environment of what it needs to remain stable.
With the increased frequency and intensity of storms being attributed to climate change, water infrastructure will need to be upgraded, Lowry said. Many communities rely on centralized treatment centers to manage their wastewater, and many of these facilities are overloaded and experience spills. Storms and flash floods push old pipes and full-capacity centers past their breaking points – pipes leak or burst and sewer pits overflow.
Lowry said there has been progress in recent years on funding infrastructure upgrades in communities and states. It’s a more bipartisan conversation than other environmental issues, and communities that have been hit hard by multiple storms are starting to have new ideas about how to rebuild to better withstand the effects of climate change.
Still, Alabama’s preparedness efforts are all reactionary, which is why a full body of water is a priority, she said.
“Policies like that — proactive policies that are really forward thinking about how we will make decisions if we encounter challenges with our environment — are something this state hasn’t been very strong on. “, she said.
Lowry hopes there will be a greater focus on environmental justice, with official agencies working more with local municipalities to help communities affected by pollution and weather events. Such problems are characteristic of the Birmingham area, where Lowry is based, and of the Black Belt.
She wants to see stronger permitting processes for industry projects and easier access to funding for cleanups in communities that need it. Activists in North Birmingham have been trying for years to get a Superfund site on the Superfund National Priority List.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to these issues, Lowry said. It is important to have multiple avenues of access to funding so that all communities have options. Small communities cannot always repay their loans, so they need access to grants.
Lowry stressed that new jobs must be created without worsening climate change. Although Alabama tends to look to heavy industry for economic gain, she said she hopes a different approach from the Biden administration will trickle down to the state level.
Lowry also said conversations about climate change in Alabama need to be connected to what’s happening in Alabama.
For her and other conservationists working in the Deep South, it’s all about relationships and building trust. The environment becomes a less partisan issue when you focus on the essentials, she said, because everyone wants clean water.
“I’ve found it much easier to have conversations with elected officials at the state level in places like Alabama, where people grow up a little closer to nature and conservation, and [by] just kind of meeting people where they are,” Lowry said.