Flint River Basin lawsuit adding new uncertainty to irrigation in Southeast

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The feud over water from the Flint River Basin has been simmering for a long time. The situation is likely to get hotter now that Florida has filed suit against Georgia over access to the water. The Georgia Water Planning Policy Center’s Doug Wilson discussed the issue during a stop on a recent tour held for state legislators at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Ga.

The lawsuit, filed in October, claims Georgia's excessive use of water in the basin formed by the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers is depriving the Apalachicola Bay in the Florida Panhandle of the freshwater  flows it needs to preserve its ecological balance.    

The filing asks the U.S. Supreme Court to ensure a steady flow of water for the Bay to support Florida's oyster industry. It follows years of negotiations between Alabama, Florida and Georgia over the water that flows through Georgia and along the Alabama-Georgia line before emptying into the Apalachicola River in Florida.

Wilson says that if the Supreme Court agrees to hear the lawsuit -- which most think it will -- the Court will appoint a special master to hear all of the evidence, probably over a period of several years. The special master will then decide who gets how much water between the states involved.

In the Flint River Basin, he said, Georgia has about 500,000 acres of cropland under center pivots. A metering program currently being conducted by the state of Georgia indicates farmers currently are applying about 13 inches of irrigation water annually or about 176 billion gallons of water. On the other hand, Georgia now has about 700,000 acres that are permitted for irrigation.

"One of the big issues we have is that we have to pull those numbers together," said Wilson. "So through the Soil and Water Commission and EPD, the water center is going to the field with a GPS unit and mapping where the withdrawal is and where the pivot is and where the end of the pivot is so we can determine how many wetted acres we have rather than this permitted number."

Georgia currently has a number of permits that may be held by multiple parties on the same parcel of land -- the landowner, the tenant, the farm manager. "Florida undoubtedly will point to the number of permitted acres and say 'well, you may not be irrigating those, but you can," said Wilson. "So we have to sort all this out. I have to tell you that Georgia has a really strong case, but usually the upstream user has to give something up in equitable apportionment suits because they're the only one who can control what goes to the next guy."

The tour for about 25 members of the Georgia Legislature was sponsored by the Georgia Agribusiness Council.

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