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.

Will be re-evaluated annually

The suspension will be re-evaluated annually beginning in November 2013.

It does not apply to permit applications from other areas of the lower Flint and Chattahoochee River basins.

“No new applications are being accepted and no permits are being considered for any withdrawal from the Floridan aquifer,” says Lewis.

“Any application that was submitted to EPD before July 30, 2012, will be processed and considered. It doesn’t mean the permit will be issued. It’ll be looked at under the previous criteria for permitting.”

The suspension also applies to the modification of existing permits, he adds. “If you have an existing agricultural withdrawal permit and you want to increase the acres or pumping capacity, that’s also covered under the suspension and not being looked at. We can process the permit, and if the land is sold, we can transfer the permit.”

This marks the second time such a suspension has been enacted, says Lewis. The previous one was from 1999 to 2005. However, permitting resumed after the development of the Flint River Basin Conservation and Development Plan.

From March 2006 to July 30, 2012, several thousand permits were issued, he says.

The protection of endangered species was another consideration when issuing the suspension, he says.

“We have federally endangered mussels in the Flint River Basin. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to know what we are doing to protect the flows in that basin, and what we are doing to protect the species.

“Also, has the resource changed, has degradation occurred, and have there been any other adverse impacts? We really don’t know the answer to those questions.

“We’ve been issuing permits since 2006, and with budget cuts and resource limitations, we haven’t conducted a great deal of studies like we did initially to develop the first conservation plan.

“The standard thinking is that we need to assess what has happened since we began reissuing permits back in 2006. We need to know what has happened to the resources, and what are we doing to protect certain minimum flows in the rivers and streams and tributaries in this region.”

Another factor in the suspension has been the tri-state water negotiations involving Georgia, Florida and Alabama, says Lewis.

The governors and other leaders in the three states are discussing what types of agreements can be made to insure that minimum flows are coming across the Georgia state line south of Lake Seminole, he says.

“EPD’s job is to determine reasonable use,” he says. “Georgia is a riparian rights water system, meaning that if you’re a landowner, you have a reasonable right to water use that runs on, under, or adjacent to your property.

“Reasonable means different things to different people. At EPD, it has always meant that what’s reasonable is whatever you’ve told us you need to run your pivot. Some might not agree with that interpretation, and that’s what we’re assessing.”

The EPD will begin conducting assessments and modeling, says Lewis, to determine if and where permits can continue to be issued.

Still accepting applications

“But we’re still accepting applications for the Claiborne aquifer. We are also issuing permits for ponds that are not considered state water, with water being pumped from the Claiborne aquifer.

“If you’re considering buying property, you can go to the Claiborne today or wait until November to see what happens.”

Lewis says he isn’t certain that state geologists and other personnel will be finished with their modeling by November.

“I don’t know that we’ll get a data set that’s robust enough that will allow you to comfortably make a decision in context to litigation. If you think about a 5-gallon bucket — the top 3 inches is what provides the base flow to the rivers and streams in this basin and also provides protection for this species.

“That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about the perimeters of base flows.”

Simulated withdrawals will be conducted to determine their effect on the region, he says. Other factors that’ll be considered include climate data, specific crop needs, and agricultural forecasts.

The suspension applies only to agriculture, says Lewis, because the majority of the water withdrawals in the region are for farming.

“There aren’t a lot of municipalities and industries in the region asking for more water withdrawals. Unfortunately, one of the most contentious things that came out of the state water planning process was the assumption that agricultural water use was 100 percent.

“We know it isn’t 100 percent, but what is it? The EDP used 100 percent in its original assumption, and that’s not correct. The initial modeling didn’t provide a good number for what agriculture was withdrawing. The metering program gives a better model of what agriculture is using.”

The Flint River Drought Protection Act, which was put into effect in 2001 and 2001, was not working, says. Lewis. The idea behind the legislation was to pay farmers to take acres out of irrigation to protect certain flows at the state lines.

“With commodity prices and land prices what they are today, it would cost an amount of money that the state couldn’t afford today. This is not to say it isn’t a useful tool, but the act doesn’t work in its present form.”

As an alternative, he says, the EPD is looking into the possibility of taking growers off of surface water in some areas and putting them into groundwater systems. It wouldn’t be a one-time payment, and it would be more of a long-term solution, he adds.

Lewis recommends that growers in the region affected by the suspension hold off on submitting any new applications until after a decision is made in November on whether or not to resume permitting.

“There will be no advantage to submitting an application during this moratorium. You won’t be the first in line when and if permitting is resumed. It’s a $250 non-refundable fee, and the application process is likely to change, so you won’t gain anything by submitting applications now.”

For more information about the suspension or if you have questions about specific property, growers can call the EPD Agricultural Permitting Office in Tifton at 229-391-2400.