Water resources hearing gets heated

During a recent U.S. House hearing on water resources, a Georgia congressman accused officials of dishonesty during the lingering tri-state water wars while a southwest Georgia farmer said that the total impact of the 2007 drought was approximately $1.3 billion.

Rep. Sanford Bishop, who represents southwest Georgia, said the governors of his state, Florida and Alabama met recently in Washington and were optimistic that a fair and far-reaching solution could be worked out on the water resources issue.

“I, too, was hopeful,” said Bishop at the March 11 hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on water resources and environment. “Today, it brings me no pleasure to serve as one of the referees in this water war.”

Things have only gotten more complicated since last October, he added. “A hastily adopted water plan passed by the Georgia General Assembly, a desperate attempt to move the Georgia border with Tennessee up to the 35th parallel, the failed negotiations between the governors, a persistent, damaging drought, and pending litigation between the states all have stood in the way of progress. Clearly, there are several ‘fronts’ in this water war. And on every front, a common tactic is being employed: Dishonesty,” said Bishop.

In the past 15 years, the 16-county metro Atlanta area has gained a national reputation for its uncontrollable growth, and it's not an unwarranted reputation, says the congressman. Suburban sprawl, crippling pollution and 24-hour traffic jams are just some of the ways the Atlanta area has proven unable to live within its means, he said.

“So I have a hard time believing that, given its explosive growth, this area has prudently conserved its water,” said Bishop. “But it's not just Atlanta. We've heard differing accounts of how much water nuclear power plants need to operate, how much water flow mussels and sturgeon need to survive, how much Alabama needs, how much Florida needs.”

Bishop said he does not understand how a long-term plan can be arranged and sustainability can be achieved unless all of the interest groups engage in a frank and honest conversation. “Hopefully, today's hearing will allow such an opportunity.

As the congressman who represents southwest Georgia, I will do my dead-level best to protect southwest Georgia interests. But the bottom line for a resolution of this water war is that it must be fair for all of the various watersheds,” he said.

People on the southern end of the state, including farmers, have tried over the past decade to be wise stewards of water resources, he said.

“We have poured thousands of dollars into research so that we can get the most efficient agricultural production out of the least utilization, in an effort not only to conserve this life-sustaining resource, but to preserve it for those downstream, and for the future.

I expect the same of my louder and greedier upstream neighbors. If this means the upstream has to plan better in their growth, then so be it.

“I will not let downstream Georgia communities, from West Point Lake to Lake Seminole, have their needs trampled without due consideration in a stampede to protect unrestricted and unplanned growth in water use of the northern part of the state,” said Bishop.

Meanwhile, Tim Burch, a southwest Georgia farmer and board member of the Georgia Peanut Commission, testified that peanut losses alone in his home county of Baker were $4 to $8 million in 2007.

As the Southeast continues to suffer from the drought, agriculture has seen first hand the dramatic, dry changes, said Burch. “Through these times, irrigation systems have become a necessity to produce crops, thus increasing the operational expenses. Increases in energy costs have only made our drought problem worse. There is no indication that energy costs will diminish for the 2008 crop year,” he said.

Drought conditions in Georgia during 2007 were responsible for approximately $800 million in agricultural losses, according to the Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development at the University of Georgia. These losses came primarily from hay and pasture, cotton, peanuts and corn. The greatest losses were in pasture, at approximately $265 million, said Burch.

”The center estimates that the 2007 drought had a total economic output impact of $1.3 billion in losses,” he said. Output losses are the total sales that are lost to the Georgia economy due to these direct losses reported for each commodity. With these estimates for the 2007 crop year, Burch emphasized the importance of Georgia's water as a shared natural resource to help save farmers money in 2008.

”With collective efforts, Georgia farmers have helped the Georgia legislature resolve the water management issue. The statewide water plan has now passed the state legislature and has become law. It establishes a framework for moving forward on Georgia's water issues. Georgia producers will continue to participate as the plan evolves,” he said.

”We have very serious water issues in our state and in the Southeast. As one segment of Georgia's economy, we are striving to use the best technologies and conservation practices available to protect out water resources,” said Burch.

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