With all signs pointing toward a fourth consecutive year of drought, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has formally declared a “severe drought” within the Flint River basin, located in the southwest region of the state. The declaration means selected farmers in the area will be paid not to irrigate their crops this year.

“Based on the data we've gathered from the U.S. Geologic Survey, the state climatologist and our own scientists and engineers, we do not see relief from this drought. We are anticipating a fourth consecutive year of drought,” says Harold Reheis, EPD director.

The Flint River Drought Protection Act, adopted last year by Georgia's General Assembly, is designed to protect stream flow levels in the Flint and its tributaries during severe droughts. The act established a fund to compensate farmers who voluntarily suspend agricultural acreage from irrigation during a severe drought year.

Georgia's EPD conducted a voluntary auction on March 17 at eight sites in the lower Flint River basin. At that time, farmers bid how much they wanted the state to pay them to remove acreage from irrigation this year. The EPD chose participants based on the bids.

Eligibility outlined

Farmers who were eligible to participate in the auction included those permitted surface-water irrigators in the Flint River basin who use streams which flow year-round — perennial streams — as their water source. In addition, participants must have had their irrigation system reviewed by EPA and must have had a certificate from the agency verifying the review.

Georgia has issued 1,444 surface water agricultural withdrawal permits for the entire region, but it's not known how many of the permits currently are in use. Farmers holding 346 permits to withdraw surface water submitted bids in the auction, and 209 bids were accepted.

Although not all of the bids were accepted, state environmental officials say the auction will enable them to keep about 130 million gallons per day of water off farms and in the river. Farmers submitted bids at one of eight auction sites within the 42 counties that are part of the Flint River basin.

Linked by computer

Each location was linked via computer to a central office at Georgia State University, where the bids were tabulated and either accepted or denied. Farmers say the accepted bids ranged from $125 to $200 per acre.

State officials say the program is aimed primarily at farmers in the lower Flint basin because it is the most productive agricultural region in Georgia. During the summer, southwest Georgia farmers pump hundreds of millions of gallons a day out of the ground or from the lower Flint and its tributaries.

Water experts say the heavy usage threatens to dry up the lower Flint and its connecting streams. “We cannot let that happen,” says Reheis. “The continuing drought forces farmers to depend more heavily on irrigation, and this places a greater demand on the river and its tributaries.”

A major concern is that a low Flint could cause springs flowing into the river to reverse their course, forcing contaminated water into underground aquifers and fouling the major source of drinking water for the region, says Rob McDowell, senior EPD geologist.

Wildlife officials are concerned about endangered freshwater mussels and striped bass that live in springs along the Flint River.

Farmers who use groundwater are ineligible for the program, says McDowell, because it's not clear what impact such withdrawals have on the Flint's water flow. Researchers have concluded that for every gallon of surface water withdrawn from the Flint or its tributaries, stream flow decreases by that amount, meaning that little water is being returned to the river after its use.

EPD officials had targeted taking about 10,000 acres out of irrigation at a total cost of $10 million. The money comes from Georgia's share of the settlement of lawsuits filed by states against tobacco companies over the cost of smoking-related illnesses and deaths.

While March rains caused minor flooding in central Georgia, they brought little relief from the drought that has gripped Georgia for the past three years, says David Stooksbury, state climatologist.

“Without substantial additional rains, the three-year drought will persist throughout the summer across the state. It'll take at least several months of higher-than-average rainfall to pull Georgia out of a drought,” says Stooksbury.

Even with recent rains, most locations in Georgia are reporting rainfall deficits for the year, he says. The exceptions are portions of Bartow, Floyd, Haralson, Paulding and Polk counties in northwest Georgia.

Models from the National Climate Prediction Center (CPC) indicate that soil moisture remains very low across north and south Georgia. Recent rains have brought soil moisture levels across the central part of the state to near normal, notes Stooksbury.

Stream flows, he adds, have shown recovery from record to near-record low flows. However, without additional rains, this recovery will be short-lived, and streams will return to extremely low levels, he says.

Early winter rains gave hope that Georgia's long drought would recede, says Stooksbury. However, an extremely dry late December through late February caused drought conditions to intensify.

“Prospects for widespread, long-term drought relief are not good,” says the climatologist. “Conditions probably will worsen during the spring and summer. CPC's drought outlook for Georgia is for the drought to continue at least through May.”

In March, soil moisture normally increases with bountiful spring rains and minimal soil moisture loss from evaporation and plant water use, says Stooksbury. Starting in May, the soil moisture loss from evaporation and plant water use usually is greater than the rainfall.

“Thus, by May, with normal weather, the state's soils will begin to become dryer,” he says.

The March-through-May climate outlook from CPC is for an increased likelihood of below-normal rainfall statewide except in the extreme northern mountain counties. CPC's June-through-August climate outlook is for an increased likelihood of above-normal temperatures statewide.

“Above-normal temperatures will increase soil moisture loss through increased evaporation and increased plant water use. CPC's rainfall outlook is for equal chances of below-normal, near-normal and above-normal rainfall across the entire state,” says Stooksbury.

Even with normal rainfall during the summer, Georgia's soils become drier, he continues. “With the soils already dry, normal weather will just compound the problem. All of this indicates that the drought will continue and likely worsen through the summer.”

THE DROUGHT THAT has gripped Georgia since May 1998 is expected to continue and likely will worsen during the spring and summer, says David Stooksbury, state climatologist.