Most news media outlets in Georgia treated it as a minor item, and it wasn’t even worthy of mention out of state, but a recent action concerning the issuing of water permits should make every farmer in the Southeast sit up and take notice.
In late July, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) announced that it would be suspending any consideration of new applications for agricultural water withdrawal permits in the southwest region of the state.
It’s not uncommon to read about water restrictions in other parts of the country, especially in California and parts of the Midwest, but here in the South we’re accustomed to unfettered access to water resources, as long as we’re willing to pay for digging the well and getting the water to the fields. But those days may be coming to an abrupt end.
The application permit suspension applies to a 24-county area of southwest Georgia where much of the state’s irrigated row-crop acreage is located, affecting both agricultural groundwater and surface water withdrawals in the lower Flint and Chattahoochee River basins.
This region includes all or part of Baker, Calhoun, Colquitt, Crisp, Decatur, Dooly, Dougherty, Early, Grady, Lee, Miller, Mitchell, Seminole, Sumter, Terrell, Turner and Worth counties. In addition, agricultural surface water withdrawal applications for parts of Calhoun, Chattahoochee, Clay, Early, Marion, Randolph, Schley, Stewart, Sumter, Terrell and Webster counties will not be considered.
The suspension takes effect immediately, but doesn’t apply to applications that already had been received prior to the announcement, or that were in the possession of the agency as of July 30.
The suspension also applies to applications to modify existing permits to increase withdrawals or increase the number of irrigated acres.
In making the announcement, EPD Director Jud Turner recognized the water resources affected by the suspension are a significant source of water for irrigation. “A continued increase in withdrawals from these resources may ultimately lead to unacceptable impacts to existing users or compromise the sustainable capacities of these resources.”
The suspension applies to new applications for groundwater withdrawal from the Floridan aquifer, as well as applications for surface water pumping from streams and rivers in the Spring Creek, Ichawaynochaway Creek, KinchafooneeMuckalee Creek, and Lower Flint river sub-basins in the Flint River Basin.
Turner says the suspension will give the EPD time to “update the mathematical models used to assess water resources in the area and to evaluate the impact of increased withdrawals,” adding that the suspension will be re-evaluated annually beginning next November.
What all of this means for farmers in southwest Georgia remains unclear. There have been rumblings that the state’s legislature may consider far-reaching water policy in next year’s session, but it’s anyone’s guess at this point. And the same trend is sure to be seen in other Southeastern states, as various segments continue to vie for a finite resource.
For certain, it places growers in a precarious situation. Extension specialists and others have warned for several years now that this day was coming — that in the future, there would be limitations on the amount of water that could be used for irrigating crops. But at the same time, there’s the constant urging to farm smarter and reduce risks, which most commonly means adding irrigation to the mix.
Here in Alabama, for example, where it’s commonly perceived that growers don’t irrigate nearly enough, the legislature has passed a tax incentive encouraging investment in irrigation equipment and structures.
And then there’s the issue of irrigating simply to survive. While this summer’s drought in the Midwest is one for the record books by many measures, so was last year’s drought in the South-Central states, and it’s only been a decade since an extreme five-year drought hit the West. You can argue the merits of climate change and global warming theories, but it’s hard to deny that widespread annual droughts are becoming more frequent.
In an era during which drought is the norm rather than the exception, farmers are being told they must irrigate to stay in business. At the same time, public officials and water experts are saying there isn’t enough water to go around. Hopefully, a middle ground can be found.