To sustain its growth, Georgia must begin to manage its water wisely, Georgia's Environmental Protection Division director told farmers and water experts recently. Agriculture will have a prominent seat at the table of any future policy decisions.

“Agriculture has been the foundation of Georgia's economy,” said EPD Director Carol Couch, “and water is the lifeblood of agriculture.”

Couch met with about 30 farmers and University of Georgia researchers at UGA's C.M. Stripling Irrigation Research Park this summer. She came to learn about farm water research, usage and management and to listen to area farmers who depend on irrigation for the health of their crops, especially during extended dry spells, like the 1998-2002 drought.

Her visit was arranged by State Rep. Richard Royal (D-Camilla). She toured farms and met with farmers in Decatur and Miller counties, too.

“We just want to make sure we have the opportunity to be a player and input in however the state decides to manage water,” said Bubba Johnson, farmer and president of the Mitchell County Farm Bureau. “We are thankful she came here and was willing to listen to our concerns.”

Georgia is the 10th most populated state in the United States, and it is the world's 17th largest economy. But if Georgia is to continue this pattern of growth and economic vitality, water management must be a top priority, she said.

Georgia's General Assembly approved House Bill 237 this year. It charges the EPD to develop a statewide water plan. Stakeholders in each region or watershed in the state will develop a plan for their area. EPD will look at these plans when they develop the statewide plan, she said.

EPD must have a water plan ready to be considered by the 2007 Georgia General Assembly. The plan will then get an up or down vote in 2008's General Assembly.

Southwest Georgia and metro-Atlanta already lead the rest of the state in water management, she said.

“Stakeholders here in the lower Flint basin have been pioneers and a lot of what has been done here will be a lesson for other regions on how to manage water rights,” she said.

The Stripling Irrigation Park is a 130-acre farm where UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences experts test and develop new irrigation equipment and conduct research for major Georgia crops like cotton, peanuts, corn and vegetables.