Southeast water issues irrigation restrictions state legislatures

Don’t let winter’s rainfall make you forget about looming water issues

It’s difficult to think too much about drought, water-use efficiency, and other such things when the ground underneath your feet is so wet you can’t get your planter into the field.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, long-term drought conditions have literally disappeared from parts of the lower Southeast this past winter and into the early days of spring.

The U.S. Drought Monitor’s most recent map is definitely a departure from the norm. Most of Alabama, Georgia and the Florida Panhandle are white, meaning the region has received enough rainfall to avoid any designations of drought.

It’s not even abnormally dry in the majority of the region — a most unusual set of conditions for this time of year.

But in case you need a reminder of how important water issues are to the future of farming, Georgia’s state legislature, in its just-concluded session, came perilously close to passing a law that would have enforced efficiency requirements on agricultural irrigation systems.

A bill that sought to amend the Flint River Drought Protection Act also proposed several changes that would have directly affected Georgia farmers. But the complexity of the bill coupled with the increased volume of pending legislation resulted in it never receiving floor action.

This bill would have made the drought declaration and bidding process optional instead of mandatory. In addition, it would have required that all agricultural withdrawal permits in the Flint River basin achieve irrigation application efficiencies of at least 80 percent by the year 2020.

And while there wasn’t time during this session to get the legislation through the Georgia General Assembly and onto the governor’s desk for signing, rest assured it’ll be reconsidered next year and probably passed in some form.

Meanwhile, in Alabama — long considered one of if not the most under-irrigated states in the Southeast — farmers, armed with a brand-new tax incentive, were installing new pivots from one end of the state to the other.

This past year, the Alabama Legislature passed the Irrigation Incentives Bill, which provides a state income tax credit of 20 percent of the costs of the purchase and installation of irrigation systems.

The bill also allows the tax credit on the development of irrigation reservoirs and water wells, in addition to the conversion of fuel-powered systems to electric power.

The one-time credit cannot exceed $10,000 per taxpayer, and it must be taken in the year in which the equipment or reservoirs are placed into service. Based on reports from the field, farmers were taking full advantage of the tax break.

Government can also take it away

But everyone knows the government that giveth can also taketh away, and Alabama growers need to be aware of the possibility of water-use regulations in the near future. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially in a state like Alabama where there has never been a comprehensive water policy.

If done correctly, such a plan can insure water resources will be available for future generations of farmers.

A first step in this planning process will be a symposium at Auburn University on May 10, with the theme, “Science-based Water Planning and Policy — What We Know, What We Need to Know, and How We Get There.”

The primary purpose of the meeting is to inform Alabamians about current progress on water policy and to solicit public comment, including that from the agricultural community.

“The water-management plan is envisioned as a broad, comprehensive plan that addresses all facets of water management,” says Sam Fowler, director of the Auburn University Water Resources Center.

“This is a highly complex issue that calls for lots of input and that is why we are holding this symposium and similar ones throughout the state.”

The symposium will be held at the Comer Hall Auditorium (Ag Hill, for those who know the campus), room 207, from 9:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.

In the meantime, while growers in both states await the rules and regulations that are sure to come, the best strategy is to be proactive.

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