Water issues refuse to go away

As if low commodity prices and changing farm programs weren't enough, Southeastern farmers still must contend with a host of water issues as they enter the 2001 growing season.

One issue that won't go away, despite years of intense negotiations, is the tri-state “water wars.” Georgia, Alabama and Florida continue talks involving two watersheds — the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) river basin and the Appalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin.

“Both of these issues came together during long-range planning for water resources in north Georgia,” says Kerry Harrison, University of Georgia Extension agricultural engineer.

As north Georgia's population continues to grow, an alternate or more reliable water supply is needed, says Harrison. “One way to get more water into north Georgia is to reallocate water resources from recreational use to human consumption. This was attempted through federal legislation, back in 1990-91, but Alabama eventually filed a lawsuit.

“Florida also entered the fray, saying there would be less water coming down the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, resulting in a negative effect on its fisheries production. Since 1990-91, the three states have been locking horns over these water issues. A decision was supposed to be reached within five years, but the deadline has been extended numerous times,” he says.

Georgia, Florida and Alabama officials have agreed to extend their negotiations until May 1 to devise a formula for sharing the waters of the ACF river basin. Georgia and Alabama have agreed to a tentative settlement in the other front of the water wars — sharing the waters of the ACT basin. The deadline for putting final signatures on the ACT agreement also has been extended until May 1.

The big unknown in these disputes is how much each state needs, says Harrison. Efforts currently are under way in Georgia to help determine the water needs of agriculture, he adds.

“In the lower Flint River basin in southwest Georgia, we had 5,400 permitted irrigation withdrawals in 1999,” says the engineer. “This includes a 14-county area beginning at Cordele and going south, along the Flint River, to Bainbridge. It constitutes as much as 80 percent of our agricultural water use permits.”

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) placed a moratorium on new permit applications for any new agricultural water use applications in this area. Farmers in southwest Georgia cannot obtain an irrigation permit until a study is completed on water use in the Flint River basin, says Harrison.

After a deadline of Nov. 31, 1999, was announced for applying for new irrigation permits, the DNR was deluged with more than 2,700 applications over a 60-day period, he adds.

“Groundwater is directly related to the surface water in that part of the state,” explains Harrison. “The Flint River has cut into the aquifer as it flows between Albany and Bainbridge. Monitoring near irrigation wells show a sharp drop in the water level — it's almost an instantaneous drop whenever a nearby irrigation system is turned on.

“There's a definite relationship there, but we don't know enough yet to say that if you're within one-mile of the Flint River, what effect you'll have on the river's flow with irrigation. We're trying to help develop policies, but one policy can't be applied to the entire state. A ‘cookie-cutter’ approach won't work. That's why the moratorium was issued only for southwest Georgia.”

In southeast Georgia and the Hilton Head area of South Carolina, there's a problem of saltwater intrusion, says Harrison. “The first thing they did was to blame agriculture for the problem. But if we look closer at the situation, we see that pulp and paper industries are the largest users of water in that area. We don't know how much water is used by agriculture in Georgia.”

The agricultural water use permit system was put into place in 1988, he says. All other industries, including pulp and paper, have had such requirements since 1972.

“The other users of water have an advantage of almost 20 years. Agricultural permits and municipal/industrial permits came into the system at different times, and they're totally different uses of water. What works for municipal and industrial permits probably won't work for agriculture in many cases.

“Agriculture doesn't have to report its water use. All municipal and industry users, however, must file paperwork annually with DNR, stating how much water is being used.”

Agricultural water use numbers have come from Extension, says Harrison, from estimates made in surveys of Georgia's county agents. There are about 20,000 agricultural water use permits in Georgia compared to about 2,600 municipal and industrial permits, he says.

“We don't have good data on agricultural water use. We don't even know for certain how many acres are being irrigated. The Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service estimated in 1998 that 750,000 acres were irrigated. Based on my survey, we're irrigating about 1.5 million acres, and based on permits on file in Atlanta, we have about two million acres irrigated.”

A more accurate accounting of irrigated acres will be required, says Harrison, before computer-based models measuring stream flow and aquifer levels can be considered reliable.

“If you put the current irrigated acres or permits into the Flint River surface-flow model, then the river should have run dry this past year. The river did not ‘dry up’ so something is wrong. Either the model is wrong or our numbers are wrong, and it's probably a combination of both.”

An extended drought in southwest Georgia has severely affected the stream flows in the region, notes Harrison.

“This past year, we saw record-low stream flows. We can't exist very long in that situation. Whatever the cause, if that trend continues, federal officials will step in.

“Basically, every stream in Georgia this past year was in this condition, with the lowest flow rates ever measured, even in areas without irrigation.”

Several options are being pursued to help alleviate the problem, says Harrison. One is the Lower Flint River Drought Management Act, where farmers who irrigate from surface water sources are paid not to irrigate.

“They're talking about payments being made to farmers who agree not to irrigate. That probably wouldn't pay a farmer to get out of cotton or peanut production. It might, however, be enough to get a farmer out of corn production. But this plan is not a cure. It's a Band-Aid or temporary solution for our water problem, and it could be applied to other areas of the state.”

The University of Georgia, says Harrison, is working with DNR to come up with a plan for measuring agricultural water use. Requiring all 20,000 irrigation permit holders to install water meters isn't practical, he says, for farmers or DNR.

The university, he continues, proposed the Ag Water Pumping Program. The program currently consists of 400 monitoring sites throughout the state that report water use on a monthly basis. Daily water use is being recorded at another 200 sites.

Farmers participate in the program on a voluntary basis. The program is scheduled to run for five years so that crop rotations can be taken into account, says Harrison.

“The key in any water use program is conservation and education. We must save water wherever we can, and that will include using better sprinkler packages on center pivots and using irrigation scheduling programs.”

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