Water concerns grow for Georgia farmers

Georgia farmers currently are irrigating nearly 1.4 million acres of cropland, with the majority of the water coming from underground sources. This could spell trouble for growers in the future, as the state continues to look for ways to regulate water use, especially groundwater.

"Groundwater is the primary area of concern in Georgia," says Jim Hooks, University of Georgia soil and water scientist. "Two regions of the state — the southwest and the southeast - already are under a moratorium on water withdrawal permits, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the central part of the state soon goes under a similar moratorium."

The moratoriums and the possibility of further freezes on water withdrawal permits is only one of several water issues that’ll be facing Georgia farmers in the months and years ahead, says Hooks.

State legislators and members of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Environmental Protection Division (EPD) are in the process of planning water policy, he adds, and agriculture needs to insure that its voice is heard in the on-going process.

"We’ve reached a time where we’re not going to be able to do whatever we want when it comes to water use. There are several areas in which you won’t have the freedoms that you’ve had in the past," says Hooks.

An old water issue that finally may be reaching some type of conclusion is the decade-old "water war" involving Georgia, Alabama and Florida. The three states have been locked in a contentious feud over sharing the waters of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin.

Georgia and Alabama have been driven in the negotiations by a concern to meet the needs of future population growth. Florida has negotiated over concern for its oyster and fishing industry located in the Apalachicola River and bay.

Georgia farmers have been watching the on-going negotiations, anxious about the implications the final agreement may have on their irrigation practices.

"The states appear to have reached a tentative agreement," says Hooks. "Florida wants to be assured in this agreement that we’re using our water wisely, and they’re feeling more comfortable as Georgia has taken steps to monitor water use more closely. EPD is comfortable with the numbers in the tentative agreement — they think Georgia can meet those numbers without imposing further restrictions. Once completed, this would be a 50-year compact."

The "numbers," he says, include the minimum amount of water that will flow from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers into the Apalachicola River.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, says Hooks, released the Georgia Drought Management Plan this past December. "This plan has little in it for agriculture or from agriculture. By in large, I’ve seen nothing in this plan that’ll harm agriculture. The EPD has said that whenever we have a drought, they’re concerned that the flow in groundwater or surface water becomes so low that if affects the cities. But with existing laws, they can’t put restrictions on agriculture. They’re not helping or hurting farmers with this plan."

The Georgia Comprehensive Water Plan is a statewide water plan currently under consideration in the state’s general assembly, says Hooks.

"A joint House-Senate study committee is looking at how we can manage water in the state. They have an advisory committee and a number of other committees that are addressing key issues. One of the first key issues is, ‘Who’s water is it?’

"If you’re a farmer, and you’ve drilled a well or dug a pond, you might think it’s your water. But it won’t be that simple in the future. This issue must be decided by our elected leaders. One of the main issues being studied is how to determine water rights. And once we’ve determined that, we have to decide on a few other things."

One issue, he says, that has been under discussion but doesn’t appear to be practical is water transfer, such as moving water from one river basin to another.

Another idea under consideration is regional water offices to help decide water issues at the local level, notes Hooks. "Should everything be decided in Atlanta, or could you and your community better decide how to divide water or solve water problems? If the water stops flowing in a small river or creek in your area, could you, as a group of farmers and the city’s businesses who use the water, come up with a plan to get the water flowing again?"

The EPD, he adds, already has shown a willingness to allow local control through regional planning commissions. The agency recently reorganized and developed one department that is responsible for agriculture.

"They are responsible for permitting and enforcement of current regulations. They’ve begun using regional offices, particularly in the Albany area. They’ll be developing other offices in Statesboro and other regions of the state. This will allow them to come up with better local plans and provide a place for farmers to go for help without being made to go to Atlanta. There currently are 20,000 permits in Georgia for agricultural water use."

Effective since Nov. 30, 1999, there has been a freeze on new water withdrawal permits for the Doughtery Plain region of southwest Georgia, says Hooks. This freeze applies to groundwater permits for the Floridan Aquifer, he says.

"This is our largest agricultural production area, and our largest concentration of irrigation in Georgia. The state agency has chosen well drillers as a means of enforcing this freeze. Anyone who attempts to drill a well who doesn’t have a letter of concurrence can be fined. And you can’t use an existing permit to drill a new well."

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources also is involved in the Lower Flint River and Floridan Aquifer Water Development and Conservation Plan, he adds.

"This plan is the reason they were able to say ‘no more permits.’

The only way you can stop permitting is if you have a comprehensive plan. Part of that plan came about when Georgia began negotiating with Florida over the ACF river basin. Florida didn’t think Georgia knew how much water was being used, and that started this entire process of planning and moratoriums."

Florida, he says, has been monitoring irrigation for some time. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, through its Ag Pumping Program, has begun monitoring irrigation in Georgia.

"We selected a few hundred farmers from throughout the state and asked if we could monitor their irrigation systems. If they agreed, we installed a meter on their system. Participating farmers receive an annual report showing what we’ve observed. This random selection of only about 2 percent of the current permits, gives EPD an idea of our average water use."

Another program — the Doughtery Plain Real-Time Monitoring Program — is an automated system involving about 200 sites. The program can tell whether or not an irrigation system is running, and it gives an idea of how many farmers are irrigating at the same time.

Water withdrawal permits also have been frozen for farmers in the Flint River basin who may want to irrigate from surface water, such as streams or rivers, says Hooks.

In 2000, the Georgia General Assembly established the Flint River Drought Protection Act to pay farmers who are willing not to irrigate their crops during a drought year.

This past fall, EPD placed a moratorium on new groundwater withdrawals in 24 counties of southeast Georgia, says Hooks. "You no longer can drill wells in the Floridan Aquifer in that region of the state. This applies to everyone, including farmers, cities and industries. This is part of an interim strategy to prevent saltwater intrusion in that area, and it appears to be a long-term process."

No water legislation was passed in this most recent session of the Georgia General Assembly, but that’ll probably change next year, says Hooks.

"They’ll be looking seriously at what needs to be done. What happens between now and September will be critical for the future of farming in Georgia. The moratoriums are being enforced through well drillers. But it won’t be long before they start looking for farmers."

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