Winter rains have aided dry soils

A program designed to compensate southwest Georgia farmers for not irrigating during periods of drought will not be enacted this year, according to a recent statement from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

“A severe drought declaration in southwest Georgia's lower Flint River Basin will not be made this year in accordance with the Flint River Drought Protection Act,” according to Carol A. Couch, director of the EPD.

By March 1 of each year, the EPD director, in consultation with the state climatologist and the state geologist, determines if a severe drought declaration should be issued for the lower Flint River Basin as required by the Flint River Drought Protection Act. The Act established a fund to compensate farmers in the Flint River Basin who voluntarily stop irrigating their crops when a severe drought is declared. The purpose of the Act is to protect stream flow in the lower Flint River and its tributaries during a severe drought.

Stream flow, groundwater levels, winter precipitation and the 90-day precipitation outlooks within the lower Flint River Basin are the factors that determine whether a severe drought is declared. The 90-day precipitation forecast, current stream flows and groundwater levels do not support the declaration in the lower Flint River Basin of a severe drought, said Couch in early March.

Like other parts of the lower Southeast, the area received good winter-season rains which brought up groundwater levels and caused record daily high flows in some streams. In fact, conditions in the lower Flint River Basin are more favorable at the start of this year's growing season compared with last year.

According to the federal government U.S. Drought Monitor, drought conditions in lower Flint River Basin areas most likely affected by the potential declaration have improved and are now labeled as abnormally dry. Exceptional and extreme drought conditions continue in the upper Chattahoochee, Coosa and Tallapoosa River basins of north Georgia. This is the sixth year in a row that a severe drought declaration has not been necessary in the lower Flint River Basin.

The second report of March from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows that winter rains have made significant progress in easing dry conditions throughout the lower Southeast, especially in Alabama, where drought conditions were most severe during much of 2007. The area of Alabama categorized as being in an “exceptional” drought — the most severe ranking, has shrunk to about 4 percent in the northeast corner of the state. Just three months ago, more than 40 percent of the state was experiencing exceptional drought.

Several inches of rain and even snow in higher elevations allowed for widespread improvement to the drought status in the Southeast during the early part of March. The precipitation allowed for a categorical improvement of all drought categories in North Carolina, and with the removal of the “exceptional” drought category from the state, this is the first time since August 2007 that there is no exceptional drought in the state.

In Georgia, the drought improved in the northeast corner of the state and in the northwest. The drought categories in central Georgia were all shifted to the north in response to continuing improvements there. Northern portions of Florida also continued to see precipitation.

Meanwhile, ongoing negotiations between Alabama, Georgia and Florida on how to allocate shared water resources have collapsed, and attorneys for the three states agree that any resolution now will probably come through the courts. At least eight active lawsuits are pending involving the two-decade water feud, and state officials expect heavy activity in those cases this year.

At the same time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service soon will issue a short-term operations plan.

The three governors — Sonny Perdue of Georgia, Bob Riley of Alabama, and Charlie Crist of Florida — broke off negotiations recently after months of talks mediated by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. It isn't clear where the talks broke down since the states signed a confidentiality agreement concerning the details.

Generally, Georgia says it needs more water from two major river basins, while Florida and Alabama say Georgia already takes too much and is crippling water flows downstream.

The next move is expected to come from the federal government, with the Corps of Engineers writing a new short-term plan to govern river operations during periods of severe drought. It would replace an existing arrangement — set to expire June 1 — that Kempthorne announced at the start of the governors' talks this past November, allowing Georgia to hold back more water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin that runs along the Alabama-Georgia border.

Florida immediately protested, saying reduced flows would irreparably harm its Apalachicola Bay.

The Corps also has begun rewriting control manuals that guide long-term water allocations in the river systems. But because revising the manuals could take several years, action in the courts could supersede the Corps' decision. The fundamental issue in the cases is whether the Corps is already misappropriating water.

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