Proposed Law Would Require Irrigation Efficiency
Thursday, March 7th, 2013
Georgia won’t use one of the tools available to keep water in the lower-than-normal Floridan Aquifer, the giant underground reserve that feeds agriculture wells across parts of Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
But state lawmakers are considering a bill that would require more efficient irrigation equipment and call for more study of the way water flows upstream of the aquifer.
Leaders in the Peach State can hold an auction this time of year and pay farmers not to draw irrigation water from wells or streams. With a tight budget, the state is passing on that option this year.
At the same time, the legislature is considering a bill that would require farmers in part of the watershed to upgrade their equipment to make it 80 percent efficient.
And a wide swath of southwest Georgia remains under a moratorium for new wells, a ban that’s meant to keep as much water in the aquifer as possible while officials study stream flow, ground water and wildlife.
No auction this year
For a decade, Georgia officials have had the option to pay farmers in Southwest Georgia to turn off their irrigation equipment for the season. But that auction hasn’t had the expected result in the past, and with commodity prices at record highs, the state couldn’t afford to pay farmers not to irrigate this year.
“With commodity prices being what they are, we’d have to be offering $400 an acre just to get farmers to sit down and talk about the program,” said Cliff Lewis, program director for the state Environmental Protection Division’s agriculture permitting program.
Using the provision in the Flint River Drought Protection Act, state officials in 2001 and 2002 set a price to buy back farmers’ permission to irrigate from the Flint River basin.
They paid around $135 an acre for farmers to give up their right to irrigate on 33,000 acres, meaning the whole program cost about $4.5 million a year. Money from the tobacco settlement paid the expense.
But the program didn’t really work the way planners intended, Lewis said. Legislators have adjusted it a few times, but haven’t gotten the result they were looking for.
Georgia doesn’t have the money today, and farmers would demand a lot more to give up yield these days, Lewis said.
“Until there’s an extra $30 million laying around, I don’t expect the auction to happen,” he said.
Efficiency a must
An update to the Flint River Drought Protection Act would require farmers who hold 6,600 permits (some farmers hold more than one permit) in the Ichawaynochaway Creek and Spring Creek basins to make their equipment 80 percent efficient by 2020.
“That’s probably the most contentious part (of the bill), the efficiency aspect,” Lewis said.
New pivots are that efficient, but some of the permits in the two stream basins are old, and the equipment that’s spraying that water may be old, too.
Officials estimate that as many as one-quarter of the pivots in the Spring Creek basin and half the pivots in the Ichawaynochaway will need upgrades.
Experts are working to understand why the Floridan Aquifer has dropped, but the reason for the efficiency requirement is much smaller. It’s a mussel.
Four federally protected mussels live the streams and if the water level drops enough to threaten them, the U.S. government could restrict irrigation to protect the wildlife.
To protect everyone who depends on the water in the basin – from farmers to consumers to mussels – water resources managers need to understand better how ground water and surface water interact, according to the bill’s sponsor.
“The whole goal is to continue to get better at managing the water resources of the state,” said State Sen. Ross Tolleson, who introduced the bill.
The lower Flint River Basin is an important agricultural area, but few people outside that region know how farmers depend on irrigation and suffer during drought, Tolleson said.
Understanding the dynamics of the stream flow and showing an effort toward responsible stewardship will help state officials make good decisions and keep the courts or federal government from intervening, he said.
Moratorium on new wells
Georgia officials stopped all new irrigation in two dozen Southwest Georgia counties in July, promising that the state’s EPD director would look at the evidence and consider lifting the ban in November 2013.
During that year and a half, the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others are compiling information about stream flows.
Some farmers and pivot dealers have been frustrated with the ban, but understand that if stream levels drop, the federal government could restrict irrigation and if the aquifer level drops significantly, farmers across Alabama, Florida, Georgia and even South Carolina could suffer.
“What you have is an agriculture community that knows that everybody could be at risk if we keep allowing new permits,” Lewis said when EPD stopped permitting wells in the region last year. Growers already were hearing stories about some wells running dry when on July 30, EPD announced that the agency will not accept applications for new wells in Southwest Georgia, while experts conduct hydrology studies and review permitting in the lower Flint and Chattahoochee river basins.