Problems follow Georgia drought plan

Entering what appeared to be a fourth consecutive year of drought, south Georgia farmer Dave Wills devised a plan he thought would give him at least a fighting chance of making a profit in 2001.

The key to making the plan successful, says the Webster County farmer, was qualifying for the new Flint River Drought Protection Act — a state program that pays southwest Georgia farmers with surface water permits not to irrigate their crops.

“I was trying to figure out how I could survive for another year,” says Wills, who grows mostly peanuts. “I had decided that when a drought is declared, I'd participate in the program. I arranged for a friend to rent part of my land for growing dryland cotton, and I planted dryland peanuts. If the peanuts had never come up, I would collect crop insurance. I wanted to get a stand — I've never been an insurance farmer — but crop insurance plus money from the Drought Protection Act would equal a profit for me.”

Early season call

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) declared in March that a drought was imminent for 2001, and the Flint River Drought Protection Act became effective, covering 32 counties in the Flint River basin.

Wills and other southwest Georgia farmers, hammered by more than three years of drought and declining commodity prices, saw the program as a godsend. The $100 to $200 per acre they could get for not irrigating would be money in the bank, or money for paying off past debts.

“It has been tough to continue farming in this area, and last year was the worst crop I've ever had,” says Wills. “I've seen a lot of people run out of water. I watch the rain just like any other farmer, but I also watch it in my role as county commission chairman. In the spring of 1998, we had two big rain events — in March and April. Since that time, we've had far below-average rainfall.

“I decided that I just didn't want to irrigate this year. I believe it'll be a bad year, and I don't want to burn expensive diesel fuel on my cable-tow travelers.”

The basic intent of the Drought Protection Act is a good one, he adds. “It's an environmentally sensitive plan, and I certainly think farmers should be paid for not exercising their right to water crops. Farmers should be compensated for water because it's difficult to survive today without irrigation.”

But as Wills and other farmers soon learned, the EPD was ill-prepared to launch such an extensive program.

Some farmers in the 32-county Flint River basin were prevented from participating in the program because of mistakes in maps and human and computer errors. Other farmers who have never irrigated were allowed to participate in the program, and some growers were paid for more land than they actually farm.

Growers who were deemed eligible to participate in the program received auction certificates from the EPD. These certificates allowed growers to make bids for taking their land out of irrigation for the year.

Wills says two of his fields totaling 201 acres were denied by the EPD, but he was allowed to bid on a 20-acre site that he didn't even submit because it had never been irrigated. He bid the 20-acre site as a protest at a penny per acre, and the state sent him a check for 20 cents.

“Three mistakes affected me personally,” he says. “They used bad data to determine that a stream flowing through my land was not a perennial stream. On the other site, they stated that there was a perennial stream, but they made an error in listing my acres, so the computer kicked it out. Their third mistake was that I was allowed to bid on land that I had not even submitted to be included in the auction.”

Errors acknowledged

Wills tried repeatedly to get the EPD to correct their mistakes, but to no avail. The EPD has acknowledged making errors, but they have no plans to correct them this year.

“I just want every eligible farmer to be treated fairly,” says Wills, who has filed a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the EPD. He is seeking class-action status for every farmer in the Flint River basin who was barred from participating in the program. He estimates that from 100 to 400 landowners were wrongly disqualified.

Wills' lawsuit asks the court to either reopen the auction to farmers who were disqualified or order that the state pay each qualified farmer $200 per acre to remove land from irrigation.

“I want the EPD to do the right thing. They're not bad people, but they messed up, and I'm not willing to stand by and let their mistakes go unanswered, especially since they affected so many people.”

The Georgia General Assembly authorized the Flint River Drought Protection Act during last year's session. The aim of the legislation is to prevent Flint River water levels from dropping during severe droughts to levels that might prove fatal to fish and other aquatic life. The state accomplishes this by paying farmers, who irrigate with water from ponds and streams that flow into the Flint River, not to water their crops.

Funding for the program comes from Georgia's share of the national tobacco settlement.

The law provides that by March 1 of each year, the EPD director will determine whether a drought is likely for the remainder of the year. EPD Director Harold Reheis made the drought declaration earlier this year, and farmers holding about 1,500 irrigation permits initially were eligible to apply.

There were, however, restrictions to the program. Under EPD's rules, only farmers who irrigate from surface-water sources could qualify. And, if a farmer irrigates from a stream, the stream must be perennial, or flow year-round. Also, a qualifying farmer must have irrigated in previous years.

After the drought declaration was made, EPD officials rushed to verify irrigation pumping stations and to map acreage. If EPD officers were unable to find pumps or contact farmers, the land was declared ineligible.

EPD officials have acknowledged making mistakes, and they have pledged to use better data in future verifications, but that's little solace to farmers like Dave Wills.

“It would have been simple to have gotten better information if the state had used local maps and information from local sources such as the Farm Service Agency, Extension or the NRCS,” says Wills.

Instead, the EPD relied on field technicians with hand-held GPS devices and outdated U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maps.

Procedure outlined

“The EPD officials used a USGS map that showed perennial streams as solid blue lines. My stream is shown on the USGS map as a broken blue line, but it's perennial. An official with the USGS has told me that their maps are based upon educated guesses concerning where the streams become perennial, and that the maps and corresponding blue lines are questionable data at best. Yet, the EPD used this as their only determinant of a perennial stream.”

Many farmers have complained about errors in the verification process, but they get the same answer from the EPD, says Wills. “They say there's nothing they can do about it — that they'll get it straightened out by next year. They say they're not going to reopen the auction, but that's not good enough for me.”

Georgia EPD lacking staff for water woes

By Paul L. Hollis
Farm Press Editorial Staff

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) does not have enough manpower to deal adequately with the state's existing water problems, much less with emerging problems, according to a document adopted recently by a subcommittee of the state's Department of Natural Resources.

The Water Issues White Paper carries a sense of urgency in dealing with the state's water woes. It says the EPD must have a major infusion of money to hire more workers to help clean up the state's waters and prevent current problems from getting worse.

The EPD has come under criticism in recent months for its handling of the Flint River Drought Protection Act, a state program that pays farmers for not irrigating their crops during severe droughts. Many farmers claim they were ruled ineligible to participate in the program due to errors made by EPD.

“Simply and bluntly put, Georgia's water programs have traditionally been under-funded and are still under-funded,” states the document.

The white paper is intended as a set of guidelines for helping a new House/Senate study committee come up with a statewide water management policy. The study committee is expected to present its recommendation for state water management policy to the 2002 Georgia General Assembly.

The paper says major “water stresses” facing Georgia include:

  • The drought of 1998-2001, which is “having profound negative impacts on agricultural and municipal water systems.”

  • Growth in north Georgia, which has increased the amount of treated sewage entering rivers and increased the amount of water pollution from storm runoff.

  • Growth in coastal Georgia, which has caused increased withdrawals of groundwater. As a result, saltwater intrusion threatens groundwater supplies in southeast Georgia and portions of Florida and South Carolina.

  • Aging sewage treatment plants and systems. Upgrading the systems will be very expensive for local governments and rate payers.

Georgia EPD responds to complaints

By Paul L. Hollis
Farm Press Editorial Staff

While acknowledging that some farmers are not happy with being denied participation in the Flint River Drought Protection Program, Georgia Environmental Protection Division Director Harold Reheis says his agency will not be holding another auction this year, nor will it pursue any actions to take more acres out of irrigation.

In a statement released last month, Reheis says that after the final rules to implement the act were adopted last December, the EPD moved quickly “with limited resources” to verify the locations and irrigated acreage on some 1,500 surface-water agricultural withdrawal permits in the Flint River basin.

“Verification of this information was necessary to minimize errors and facilitate a successful auction,” says the director. “EPD started early because of the potential for a public drought announcement on or before March 1, 2001, and the resulting need to hold an agricultural irrigation auction soon thereafter.”

Information search

The EPD, says Reheis, made arrangements with the National Environmentally Sound Production Agricultural Laboratory (NESPAL) in Tifton to assist with gathering information relating to irrigation withdrawal permits that were potentially eligible for participation in the auction.

Through EPD's own efforts and with assistance from NESPAL, he notes, in the short period of time available between December 2000 and early March 2001, EPD was able to secure the following information for validation purposes:

  • Permits validated and found eligible for auction participation: 575.

  • Permits validated but found to be ineligible for auction because they are not on perennial streams as shown on U.S. Geological Survey maps: 214.

  • Other verified ineligible permits: 208.

  • Permits where an irrigation system is no longer in use: 99.

  • Permits where at least some of the water is from a well: 30.

  • Permits where the water source is a dug pond: 21.

  • EPD was unable to contact permit holder: 47.

  • Permit holder would not cooperate with EPD inquiries: 11.

  • Incomplete validation, where either acreage or location, but not both, were determined in time for auction: 336.

  • No reply received from permit holder: 201.

  • Total Flint River basin SW permits: 1,534.

Auction registration was held at eight sites throughout southwest Georgia, according to Reheis, and 194 farmers holding 347 surface water permits — out of a potential 575 eligible permits — registered to participate in the auction.

The final results of the auction were that the EPD accepted offers on 209 permits of the 347 permits registered. The average offer price for the entire accepted acreage was $135.70, leading to a cumulative expense of $4.5 million. The highest offer price accepted by EPD was $200 per acre.

Withdrew 33,000 acres

“The auction withdrew more than 33,000 acres of farmland from irrigation using perennial surface water sources this year,” says Reheis. “EPD estimates that the 33,000 acres removed from direct surface water irrigation will mean that up to 130 million gallons per day of water that otherwise would have been consumed in irrigation now will remain flowing in the Flint River and its tributaries.”

EPD considers the auction a success, he adds, as the 33,000 acres removed was slightly above the target of 30,000 acres removed. “A few of the bids initially accepted may possibly be rejected due to fraud or other problems related to the bids, though we expect the final amount to remain close to 30,000 acres.”

Even with this success, continues Reheis, some farmers prior to the auction and then soon afterwards notified EPD that they should have been considered eligible for the auction for a variety of reasons.

“They allege that EPD's surface water agricultural permit files, the basic validation process itself, or the eligibility determination for withdrawals from perennial streams may be in error. They allege, therefore, that some people were wrongfully excluded from participating in the auction.

“Some people recommended that EPD should fix this problem administratively by offering such farmers the opportunity to take land out of irrigation even after the auction was over, by paying them the average price per acre — or the maximum price per acre — as determined in the auction.”

The objective of the Flint River Drought Protection Act, says Reheis, is to take enough land out of irrigation in a severe drought year so that damage is not caused to the Flint River.

“The intent of the law was not to take more acres out of irrigation than needed, nor was the intent to spend the entire amount of state funds available for a drought protection auction each time an auction is held.”

A state agency, he says, may exercise only such authority as conferred by law. “There is no authority in the act or rules to make payments to permit holders who did not actually participate in the auction, unless the auction process itself did not provide sufficient acres, as determined by the EPD director.

“This was not the case, as EPD did get the number of acres needed through the auction. We have no authority to do more. If EPD did act administratively after the auction to take out more acres than needed, we would be wasting state money.”

The EPD understands that some people aren't happy about being denied participation in this year's auction, notes Reheis. “EPD will devise and implement a variety of means to improve our agricultural permit database over the coming year. This will surely increase the number of eligible permit holders prior to any future year's auction.

No further auctions

“EPD will not be holding another auction this year, nor will EPD pursue administrative actions to take more acres out of irrigation, since we do not need any more than the acres on which we accepted bids at the time of the auction.”

Rainfall received since March 1 also makes it unnecessary to take more agricultural acres out of irrigation this year, he adds.

“If, in the future, we need to make another drought declaration and hold another auction, we then will have better permit records and other associated data. With more information, hopefully more farmers will qualify for participation in any future auction, and any such auction will at least be as successful in removing acreage from irrigation as the 2001 auction was.”

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