A severe drought has been declared for a second consecutive year in Georgia's Flint River basin, clearing the way for implementation of the Flint River Drought Protection Act.

“The declaration is based on data relating to winter precipitation, three-month precipitation outlooks, stream flows and groundwater levels,” says Harold Reheis, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD). Reheis has authority to issue the declaration and begin proceedings to insure the health of the river.

The Flint River Drought Protection Act established a fund to compensate farmers in the lower Flint River basin who voluntarily stop irrigating their crops with surface water during a severe drought year. Only those farmers who use surface water irrigation are eligible for the compensation. The act does not apply to groundwater wells.

Farmers who qualify for participation in the auction will be asked to submit a sealed bid of up to $150 per acre of irrigated land. Bids will be accepted, beginning with the lowest, until an adequate amount of land has been taken out of irrigation.

Only those farmers who are permitted surface-water agricultural irrigators in the lower Flint River basin and are using streams that flow year-round as their water source are eligible to participate in the auction. Farmers also must prove that the acreage submitted for the auction was irrigated in the last three years and would be irrigated again this year under normal conditions.

Farmers who are eligible to participate in the auction should have been sent information packets in March.

The first auction under the Flint River Drought Protection Act was held last March. As a result, more than 33,000 acres of lower Flint River basin farmland were not irrigated last summer that otherwise would have been irrigated. EPD estimates that more than 130 million gallons of water per day was saved in 2001.

The drought that started in Georgia in May 1998 has worsened during the normal winter recharge period, says David Stooksbury, state climatologist. Georgia depends on winter rains to replenish soil moisture, groundwater, rivers streams and reservoirs, he says, but there is little hope of recovery until winter 2002-2003.

Stream flows at measuring stations in the Flint River basin are at or below 10-year drought levels. A 10-year drought is one that would be expected to occur every 10 years during a normal weather cycle. Groundwater levels in southwest Georgia also are equal to or less than levels of one year ago.

At the end of climatological winter — December through February — Georgia hasn't had the rain needed to recharge its water systems, says Stooksbury. “Winter rainfall throughout most of the state has been very low. Only the northwest corner of Georgia is near normal. Three-month rainfall in north Georgia is at 62 percent of normal while Atlanta is at 72 percent,” he says.

In middle Georgia, Augusta is at 50 percent of normal, Columbus is at 57 percent and Macon is at 55 percent. South Georgia had Savannah at 47 percent and Tifton at 46 percent.

“Daily soil moisture levels are critically low across most of the state,” says Stooksbury. “Dry soils across the Piedmont are at a level expected only once in 20 years for this time of year, according to the federal Climate Prediction Center.”

Soils across the northern Coastal Plain are at once-in-10-year levels while southern Coastal Plain soils are at once-in-five-year levels, he says.

In the mountain counties, he adds, soil levels range from one in 20 years in Rabun County to once in four years in Dade County. As with rainfall, the soils in Georgia's northwest corner are in better shape than in other areas.

“Stream flows are at or near record daily low flows throughout the state with the exception of the northwest corner, where flows still are very low. South of an Atlanta-to-Athens line, more than 80 percent of the minimally managed streams — those without large reservoirs — are setting daily low flow records,” says Stooksbury.

In the mountains, the Chattahoochee River near Cornelia is at a daily record low. Low flows are reported on the Chattooga and Tallulah rivers near Clayton, the Chestatee River near Dahlonega, the Etowah River near Canton, the Coosawattee River near Ellijay, the Oostanaula River near Resaca and Rome and the Coosa River near Rome.

In the Piedmont, says Stooksbury, record daily lows are being set on Peachtree Creek at Atlanta, the Flint River near Griffin and Culloden, Upatoi Creek near Columbus, the Ocmulgee River near Macon, the Oconee River near Athens, the Broad River near Bell and the Little River near Washington.

In the Coastal Plain, he continues, record daily low stream flows are on the Flint River at Montezuma, Albany and Newton; Ichawaynochaway Creek at Milford; Spring Creek at Iron City; the Ochlockonee River near Thomasville; the Satilla River near Waycross, the Oconee River near Dublin, the Ocumulgee River at Lumber City; the Ohoopee River near Reidsville; the Altamaha River near Baxley and at Doctortown; and the Ogeechee River near Eden.

“Major reservoirs across north and central Georgia remain well below late-February normal pool,” says the climatologist. “Reservoirs at least five feet below normal pool include Hartwell at nine feet low, Clarks Hill at eight and Lanier at six.”

Even if a soggy March had recharged the topsoil moisture, there would be no reserve to carry plants through extended hot, dry weather, he says. It's doubtful, he adds, that groundwater, streams and reservoirs can be recharged before the high water-use months.

“There's little hope that Georgia will be able to pull out of this drought before fall. With an El Nino event developing in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, there's some hope of long-term recovery during the winter of 2002-2003.

For more information about the Flint River Drought Protection Act, call 404-657-8282 or go to the EPD website at www.dnr.state.ga.us/dnr/environ.