flint-river-albany-ga_1
Flint River flows through Albany in southwest Georgia.

Don’t ignore this key aspect of contentious water dispute

It is important to note that over the lifetime of the water dispute the agricultural landscape, especially in regard to water use and efficiency, has changed.

The water debate between Florida and Georgia received renewed national attention recently, as the case made it to the highest court in the land. The complex, long-running saga has evolved to encompass much and one facet shouldn’t be overlooked.

The three-decade old conversation over water use among Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, at times, has been called a war, a conflict, a fight and a dispute. And those are just the nice words. Emotions run high over an essential and finite resource needed by all living things, and needed to provide the commodities and products those living things want.

Over the last two decades, the issue has become highly litigated, but the argument basically boils down to Florida says Georgia uses too much water upstream from certain waterways that flow south, and agriculture water usage has been singled out as a component of that.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Jan. 8. Some news outlets speculated on which way the justices leaned, either for Florida or for Georgia, as they questioned representatives from both sides. I’ve read part of a transcript from the proceedings. I ain’t smart enough to follow much of it or to provide fixed odds for those betting at home on the outcome. But the stakes are high for farmers in the region.

It is important to note that over the lifetime of the water dispute, and certainly in the last two decades, the agricultural landscape has changed much. Technological advancements, coupled with a better understanding of water needs of crops, have contributed to a paradigm shift in on-farm water use. This hasn’t happened by accident. It takes effort and resources to move any needle in a positive way.

One example of this effort is provided by the Georgia Association of Conservation Districts, particularly the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District, which covers counties in the southwest region of Georgia and has received focus from the water dispute.

Since 2000, federal and state partners have come together with private landowners in Georgia to invest more than $750 million in conservation, water stewardship and research to improve water conservation practices on the ground level — and on farms, according to information provided by the Flint River district.

Out-of-pocket expenses for farmers and private landowners in Georgia participating in Natural Resources Conservation Services programs over the last two decades totals $105,583,540, according to information provided by the Flint River district. And the investment and effort has improved water-use efficiency on farms and in the region by 25 percent to 30 percent compared to water use before 2000.

Either as a direct response to the water conflict or as a natural outcome of the precision-based direction U.S. agriculture has been headed in the last two decades (or maybe due to both), farmers use water now more wisely than ever before because it makes economic and environmental sense to do it. Farmers have the tools to better conserve water now and to get even better at it in the near future if they have access to the resources and information to keep at it. And that shouldn’t be overlooked as the water dispute progresses to what seems a final outcome.

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