Despite winter rains, southwest Georgia - the state's most productive agricultural region - appears to be entering a fourth consecutive year of drought, says Georgia's environmental chief.

"After consultation with state and federal agencies, we want to let people in the southwestern part of Georgia know that the drought likely will continue during 2001," says Harold Reheis, head of the state Environmental Protection Division.

If stream and groundwater levels in southwest Georgia do not improve in the next 30 days, EPD might activate the Flint River Drought Protection Act, which would pay farmers in the region as much as $100 per acre not to irrigate their crops if they draw water from the river, its tributaries or farm ponds, said Reheis in late January. EPD must determine by March 1 whether a drought is imminent and if the act should be implemented.

"While we're still early in the year, it's important to note that our data shows little relief so far. This is simply a heads-up call to citizens and farmers in southwest Georgia," he says.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's drought forecast for the next three months is inconclusive, says state climatologist David Stooksbury. "This means we cannot count on significant rainfall during the next few months," he says.

In addition, U.S. Geologic Survey monitoring data show that streamflow levels in the Flint River continue to be low, and there has been little recharge of the Floridan aquifer this winter. The huge aquifer is the main source of drinking water and irrigation in south Georgia. Other portions of the state also show little signs of pulling out of the prolonged drought.