A bill in the Georgia Senate proposes changes to the Flint River Drought Protection Act (FRDPA), making its mandatory bidding process optional, along with changes to other key provisions.

The EPD is required by the Flint River Drought Protection Act to make an announcement regarding drought by March 1 each year.

A drought declaration triggers an automatic bidding process which offers cash incentives for farmers in the Flint River basin to avoid use of irrigation, thus reducing irrigated acreage. 

Georgia Environmental Protection Division Director Jud Turner opted not to issue a severe drought declaration for 2013, the EPD said in a March 1 news release.

The EPD release noted that while drought conditions are improving, it is still important that citizens be good stewards and conserve as much water as possible. 

The EPD drew criticism for declining the severe drought designation in 2012, when stream flows in the Flint River basin were at historic lows. Turner explained that the FRDPA wasn't working, because the state didn't have the money to offer the required financial incentives and the plan wasn't going to result in significant improvement of stream flows.

Turner has said publicly the FRDPA needs to be reworked to make it a financially useful tool for the state.

The bill in the Senate, SB 213, was passed in the Senate Natural Resources & Environment Committee on Feb. 28.

In addition to making the declaration and bidding process optional, the bill requires the EPD to study how revised rules might apply to managing the Flint River basin, including the interactions between surface water and ground water, development of stream flow targets for the Flint and its tributaries, collection of baseline data regarding agricultural water use and irrigation and assessment of the effects of quantifying agricultural withdrawal permits in the future. 

SB 213 would establish irrigation efficiency requirements for all agricultural water permits in the Flint River basin. Mobile and solid-set irrigation sprinklers would be required to achieve 60 percent efficiency.

New agricultural withdrawal permits will require 80 percent efficiency, defined as the percentage of withdrawn water that reaches the root zone of plants.

An 80 percent efficiency will be required of all ag water withdrawal permits in the Flint River basin by the year 2020. 

The bill also includes provisions for state funding of stream flow projects in the Flint River basin during times of drought while giving the EPD director authority to restrict withdrawals from augmented streams upon notification, enabling the targeted flows to be maintained.

Withdrawal permit holders would be entitled to a hearing within five business days of receiving a notice from the EPD of withdrawal restrictions.

(Georgia irrigation has been in the news recently for other reasons. Last summer it was announced that irrigation permits were being suspended in Southwest Georgia. Growers saw this as a threat to their livelihoods, but now officials are saying the move is designed to protect current users. For that story, see Suspension of Georgia irrigation permits said to protect current users).

For more information from the Georgia Farm Bureau, visit http://www.gfb.org/.