Changes seen in Georgia water use laws

Although it’s estimated that agriculture uses more than 40 percent of all water pumped in Georgia annually, there currently are no means of accurately measuring how much water farmers use. But legislation making its way through the state’s General Assembly would change that.

"I’m expecting and hoping there will be legislation this year," says Harold Reheis, director of the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources.

The legislation, he explains, is the result of recommendations made by the Joint Comprehensive Water Plan Study Committee. "This joint House-Senate committee worked for about 15 months in 2001-2002, and it came up with a number of recommendations on improving our water management. I hope we at least see some action on the most important of these recommendations," says Reheis.

A number of changes and improvements are needed in Georgia’s policies for managing water resources, he says. "We need to manage our water resources in a sustainable manner to insure that our grandchildren — and their grandchildren — will have enough water for a good quality of life. We also need to insure that we don’t dry-up our streams or overtax our aquifers."

Georgia is blessed with plentiful water resources, especially when compared to most states west of the Mississippi River, says Reheis. Arizona, for example, receives only 9 to 10 inches of rainfall per year while Georgia — in a good year — receives 48 to 50 inches.

"But we worry about water in Georgia for several reasons. One of those reasons is because we’re growing. Only three states added more people than Georgia in the past 20 years, and those states were much larger than Georgia — California, Texas and Florida.

"We’ve more than doubled our population in 40 years, from less than four million to more than eight million. With more people comes more water use and more industries. Also, there has been a large growth in agriculture’s water use over that same period," he says.

From 1960 to 2000, Georgia went from essentially no cropland irrigation to about 21,400 permitted irrigation systems on 2.1 million acres. Georgia has about 3.8 million acres of harvested cropland, and more than half of that is being irrigated.

"When you look at how much cropland we have and how much is being irrigated, you can assume that at least another 1 million acres could be irrigated in the future. We’re assuming there will be an additional demand for agricultural water, and that’s another reason we need to know how much water is being used."

The bulk of Georgia’s population — three of every four people who live in the state — reside north of a line that runs near Macon. "Nearly all of the geology in this part of the state is granite, after you get down past about 20 to 80 feet of clay. Granite doesn’t produce much groundwater. Only about 2 to 3 percent of all irrigated land in Georgia is found in this part of the state."

Groundwater is most productive in the southern part of the state, he continues, where land is very suitable for farming. Fewer than two million people live in an area where approximately 97 percent of irrigated land is located.

"We also have larger streams in south Georgia because most of our streams start in the northern part of the state and flow south. They become larger as they flow through south Georgia. South Georgia has better choices than north Georgia with regards to water sources, with better groundwater and surface water. North Georgia has limited water resources, and that’s a source of some controversy."

Some people in north Georgia, says Reheis, don’t want more reservoirs built there. "Reservoirs are needed because we’re very vulnerable to drought, especially when it’s a four to five-year drought like we just experienced. Reservoirs can make you less vulnerable when you have to use stream water. They can also help insure that you don’t dry-up streams — we call it ‘in-stream flow protection.’"

Without reservoirs, he says, smaller streams will become dry during periods of drought, and larger streams may reach the point of being uninhabitable by fish and other wildlife. Cities and industries in Georgia that create new water uses or expand current uses are required to build reservoirs to protect in-stream flows.

City and county governments and self-supplying industries such as power companies currently are required to record water use, says Reheis. During 2000, which was the worst year of the most recent drought, local governments used 1,197 million gallons of water per day as an annual average. In that same year, self-supplying industries used 1,016 million gallons per day.

It’s estimated, he says, that agriculture used 1,577 million gallons of water per day in 2000. "This is our best estimate. It came from research studies where meters were placed on irrigation systems in all types of crops throughout the southern half of Georgia. It’s about a 2 percent sample of all irrigation systems.

"This represents about 42 percent of all water pumped in 2000. Twenty-seven percent of the water was used by self-supplying industries and 32 percent was used by municipalities and counties."

For several reasons, says Reheis, state officials really have no way of knowing how much water is being used by farmers.

"Farmers are not now and never have been required to measure their water use. We have farmers who have permits, but they’ve never installed an irrigation system. We also have farmers who have installed irrigation systems but never have applied for or received a permit.

"Eighty-five percent of the approximately 21,000 irrigation permits in Georgia are ‘grandfathered.’ If a farmer had an irrigation system in place in 1988, or if he had applied for a permit by 1991, his system was grandfathered. In addition, the EPD always has been understaffed in the area of agricultural water use. Our database is weak. Any number we quote could be 10 to 20 percent off in either direction in terms of acres irrigated and water used."

If Georgia can manage only 60 percent of its water resources, insuring sustainability may become difficult in the future, says Reheis.

"We have a problem when there’s a sector using 40 percent or more of our water, but we don’t know how efficiently it’s being used, exactly where it’s being used or how much more we may need to allocate for agriculture."

The Joint Comprehensive Water Plan Study Committee made several recommendations, he says, including five that would directly impact agriculture.

The first of these recommendations would change current law so that flow meter management is required on all irrigation systems in the state. A proposed cost-share program would be created to purchase and install water management equipment.

"Everyone should get comfortable with the idea of flow management. There are only benefits to be had by agriculture in measuring and recording the amount of water used. EPD must make management decisions based on the best available information, and our current data on agriculture isn’t very good."

It also would be a benefit to farmers if they know how much water they’re using, he adds. Farmers can become more efficient by measuring and managing their water use.

"Most farmers are striving to be efficient with irrigation. But you’ll be much more effective if you measure the water you’re using. If we don’t know how much water you’re using, the EPD can’t know how much water is remaining to allocate to new users."

A second recommendation would authorize EPD to deny new irrigation permits if there isn’t enough water in a stream or aquifer.

"Current law allows us to deny a permit only in a situation where we’re conducting a ‘sound science’ study to determine how much water is available, how do we make it sustainable, and how much more can we allocate. We can’t say ‘no’ to farmers, but we can say ‘no’ to cities and industries. If we don’t have the ability in the future to deny permits, we’ll overtax the existing water resources."

A third recommendation, notes Reheis, would grant EPD the ability to authorize the reallocation of a permitted water use from an existing permit to a proposed new one in an area where the water is fully allocated.

Another recommendation would close a loophole in the current law, he says. "The law now says if you’re irrigating from a pond, impoundment or sinkhole, you don’t need a permit. But if you’re taking water from a live stream, you do need a permit. Most farmers who are irrigating from surface water have a permit. This is a loophole in the law that could create problems for you and your neighbors."

Current law also fails to designate water "priorities," says Reheis. "Our surface water and groundwater laws say only one thing — that in a time of emergency, when there’s not enough water, human consumption is first and agriculture is second. No other priorities are set after that, and no priorities are set when there isn’t an emergency situation."

The water study committee recommended the creation of an interagency water council made up of the different agencies of state government to develop priorities for non-emergencies.

e-mail: [email protected]

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