The suspension of irrigation permits in portions of southwest Georgia was seen by many farmers as a threat to their livelihoods when it was first announced last summer.

But a state official says the actual intent is to protect current users.

“To the ag world, this looks like we’re suppressing agriculture to a degree and threatening the growth of farming in the area. But part of the thinking behind this is to protect the investments in irrigation infrastructure that already are out there,” says Cliff Lewis, who manages the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s (EPD) agricultural permitting program in south Georgia.

There are currently 9,000 permits issued for agricultural water use from the Floridan aquifer in southwest Georgia. “A lot of permits have been issued in the region — there’s a high density, and they’re very close together.

“Part of the idea behind this suspension is the protection of these existing users,” said Lewis, speaking to a group of farmers in Dawson, Ga., in late December.

Extended droughts during the past 10 years have caused water levels in the area to fluctuate, he says. “A lot of farmers have made significant investments in infrastructure and wells and irrigation systems, and we are having issues with those folks, so the protection of existing users is part of what led to this moratorium.”

The suspension applies to new applications for groundwater withdrawal from the Floridan aquifer, as well as applications for surface-water pumping from streams and rivers in the Spring Creek, Ichawaynochaway Creek, KinchafooneeMuckalee Creek, and Lower Flint river sub-basins in the Flint River Basin.

The suspension also applies to applications to modify existing permits to increase withdrawals or increase the number of irrigated acres.

The area affected includes 24 southwest Georgia counties in the lower Flint and Chattahoochee River basins in a region known as Sub-area 4, which includes all or part of the following 17 counties: Baker, Calhoun, Colquitt, Crisp, Decatur, Dooly, Dougherty, Early, Grady, Lee, Miller, Mitchell, Seminole, Sumter, Terrell, Turner and Worth.

In addition, agricultural surface water withdrawal applications for parts of Calhoun, Chattahoochee, Clay, Early, Marion, Randolph, Schley, Stewart, Sumter, Terrell and Webster counties in areas outside of Sub-area 4 will not be considered.

When the suspension was announced last July, EPD Director Jud Turner said it would give his agency time to update the mathematical models used to assess water resources in the area and to evaluate the impact of increased withdrawals.