As water issues continue to dominate the political landscape in Georgia, farmers need to insure that their voices are heard, says Dan Thomas, University of Georgia research engineer.

“It's a reality that regional water management probably is going to happen throughout Georgia, including the Flint River Basin, coastal areas and even the Suwanee River Basin,” says Thomas. “Water management district approaches are common in Florida, Texas and California. It's a highly political approach to managing water, and everyone needs to have a voice in making these decisions for the future.”

Already, the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District has been formed, he adds. “This is a water planning district for the Atlanta metropolitan area. It's comprised of a group of counties in the Atlanta area that will make decisions about how water is used in that region. This approach probably will be seen in other areas of Georgia in the near future,” says Thomas, who gave a review of water issues facing farmers at the recent Georgia Cotton Production Workshop in Tifton.

Georgia farmers, says Thomas, still should be concerned about the statewide drought. “We cannot forget about the drought. Current rainfall conditions reveal that there still are some major areas of concern in Georgia, and some of these are crop-producing areas,” he says.

The problem with a drought, he adds, is that it's all cumulative. “Some areas in the state have received rain throughout the fall and winter. But, you have to be aware that we've had two previous years of drought, and some of the rain we've received hasn't stayed in the ground. The drought isn't going to go away anytime soon.”

River levels in Georgia are still down, says Thomas, and they won't come back up until the state receives plenty of rainfall. “We need to be aware that our water resources, as a whole, are low. Most of the time, during the winter months, we would expect things to level off because pumping is decreased. But that hasn't happened. Our water levels continue to drop,” he says.

Efforts are being made, says Thomas, to come up with a cost-share program that will help Georgia growers put in farm ponds to provide a more reliable water resource.

“Will farm ponds solve our water resource problem? We're not sure. We still must have rain to fill those farm ponds.”

Total maximum daily loads or TMDL's is another issue facing farmers, notes Thomas. “This issue deals more with the quality characteristics of our rivers. How much can we allow to go into our rivers and streams? If we have too many pollutants in our streams, the aim of this program is to find ways to reduce those.

“This is a federal program that ties back to the EPA, and it will not go away. Complying with this program might involve using best management practices. The big question is, who is going to pay for all of this? Will the costs go directly to the farmer, or will the state or someone else have to come up with the money? I think everyone should be involved in helping to pay for these conservation practices. We're all interested in keeping our water resources clean.”

Another water issue facing Georgia agriculture involves saltwater intrusion in coastal areas, says Thomas. “Oceans don't change their levels very much. But, the groundwater does change levels if we pump a lot of it. Agriculture really doesn't use as much water as some other industries. But these other industries already are being required to cut back on their water use.”

The tri-state water issue, involving Georgia, Alabama and Florida, still has not been resolved, he says. The three states still are attempting to hammer out an agreement on water withdrawals from shared rivers.

“This water issue will be with us for a long time. And be aware — no matter how the allocation formula comes out, this problem will never go away.”

The federal government has offered guidelines in an attempt to help the states conclude their years-long dispute over the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin. The proposed compromises are technical in nature — one of the main sticking points is finding a formula on how much water should be distributed from lakes, rivers and reservoirs downstream to cities.

The Flint River Drought Protection Act — enacted for the first year in 2001 — directly impacts farmers in the Flint River basin, says Thomas.

“The Georgia General Assembly set aside money that would allow farmers to take their land out of irrigation during a drought year. This past year, about $4.5 million was spent to take more than 33,000 acres out of irrigation. Did the program have an impact? We don't really know. Fortunately, we had some rain this past year in the Flint River Basin. Have we gained anything for the future if the same growers who were in the program this past year return to their old practices this year?”

Those involved in agriculture need to know, says Thomas, that the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has re-organized, and it now has a new agricultural division that will have groundwater and surface water responsibilities. “We think the system for granting irrigation permits will change, but we're not sure at this time what those changes will be.”