Despite two consecutive years of plentiful rainfall in the lower Southeast, a dry spring in most areas has renewed interest in water management plans, and officials in Alabama and Georgia are proceeding with plans to address the states' water issues.

Georgia officials have begun a program of installing water meters on farms in the southwest region of the state, a first step toward determining how much water farmers use. Meanwhile, in Alabama, state policy makers continue the process of implementing a drought management plan.

State contractors currently are installing 177 water meters on southwest Georgia farms. As many as 21,000 meters are to be installed during the next six years at an estimated cost of $36 million.

The goal of the metering program is to install gauges on each of the well pumps and river intake systems used to irrigate Georgia farms. Until now, farmers have been the only water users in the state who have not been required to track their consumption.

The data will be used by state officials to devise Georgia's first comprehensive water management plan, due to be presented to the General Assembly in 2008.

Funding for the next two years of the metering program — about $911,000 — came from the OneGeorgia Authority, which disburses money from the state's settlement with tobacco companies.

Member of the Georgia Water Coalition, a collection of more than 80 environmental organizations, say metering is a necessary tool for water planning.

“We know how much water is used by municipalities. We know industries. But we don't know agriculture,” says Julie Mayfield of the Georgia Conservancy. “This is a huge gap in our knowledge of water use in Georgia.”

Still, some coalition members worry that irrigation meters might be precursors to allowing Georgia farmers to sell their water rights. The group opposes such water marketing and has fought legislative efforts to make it legal in Georgia as it is in some Western states.

The water meters are being installed initially on a random sample of farms near Georgia's Flint River, an area where the state has not issued any new irrigation permits in several years because of concerns that the river might be permanently harmed from excessive watering by growers.

The irrigation data, which is being collected by the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission (GSWCC), will be useful in developing the statewide water plan over the next three years. The plan will be the basis for dividing water in the state's rivers and underground aquifers among farmers, cities and industries.

David Bennett, the commission's executive director, says farmers also will be able to use the meters to help save water. Farmers say they use much less water than is indicated by state environmental regulators. The state's Environmental Protection Division has estimated that farmers use more than half the state's water withdrawals during a drought.

Bennett says an agricultural water meter is a simple, yet effective management tool on the farm. An agricultural water meter displays accurate readings of how much water is applied to a crop in inches per acre — which most farmers use — and feet per acre, as well as the total gallons used every time a farmer irrigates crops.

“In addition to gaining useful information for state water policy makers, the commission also plans to help train farmers to utilize the meters to more accurately irrigate crops,” he says.

Bennett also adds, “With rising fuel costs associated with pumping agricultural water and the conservation ethic of most farmers, water conservation is a key element in today's agriculture.”

The initial phase of the project was installed in the Ichawaynochaway Basin. Of the 137 meters currently installed, 17 of the meters have telemetry equipment, which sends rainfall and metering snapshots to the GSWCC every 12 hours. Forty Champion meters also have been installed.

The Alabama Water Resources Commission recently received a draft for implementing a management plan during a drought. The draft plan was presented now, say officials, because the state is behind in rainfall for the year, and the Office of Water Resources (OWR) did not want to wait until a crisis occurs before adopting guidelines.

Several stake holder groups, including the Alabama Farmers Federation, had input into development of the plan.

“We have been able to get landscape professionals removed from the ‘recreational water users’ classification, and we had water usage restrictions changed from mandatory to voluntary during a drought,” says Paul Pinyan, director of agricultural legislation for the federation. “The proposal is just a first step in adopting guidelines.”

The OWR was asked by the commission to look into the procedures the Alabama Forestry Commission uses to determine drought and no-burn periods and report back at the next meeting on July 21. Some of the commissioners wanted to have guidelines within the plan to use to declare a drought.

The plan does not recognize the emergency powers of the government to declare a disaster before drought relief can be given by the government. Once a plan is adopted by the commission, it will be opened for public comments before final adoption. The drought management plan can be viewed on the Internet at http://www.adeca.alabama.gov/owr/drought/drought_about.aspx?.

Under the heading, “Agriculture Drought Response,” the plan states the following: “Irrigation water users are encouraged to use best management practices and to use efficient irrigation systems during pre-drought conditions in addition to water conservation practices during droughts. Agriculture users are encouraged to coordinate responses to drought conditions and to help maintain an available supply for future use by:

  1. Working through professional organizations and societies to develop and coordinate more efficient water management practices and drought procedures;

  2. Promoting the development and distribution of information on water-efficient irrigation techniques;

  3. Providing information and encourage agricultural stakeholders to take advantage of available financial incentives for retrofitting and updating older or less efficient systems and distribute a list of such incentives;

  4. Improving communications and cooperation among agricultural stakeholders and relevant state and federal agencies regarding available assistance during drought conditions;

  5. Encouraging the installation of water-efficient irrigation technology for newly installed systems;

  6. Educating landscapers, nursery operators, and irrigators on the proper application of pesticides and fertilizers and conservation of water to reduce effects on water quality; and

  7. Recommending irrigation system efficiency audits every five to seven years.”

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com