Drought was a constant companion and problem for farmers in the upper Southeast in 2007. In addition to leaving many growers with partial crops and unable to take advantage of high grain prices, the prolonged drought has brought to the forefront a long-term problem — water.

While the drought was, and remains, severe it’s not a new problem for farmers in the Southeast. "Our farmers are currently suffering the worst drought conditions in our state's history," Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said in a statement recently. Though Commissioner Irvin’s statement is certainly applicable today, it was made the third Tuesday in August, 2000.

The drought that started in parts of Georgia and Alabama in early 2006 has spread throughout the region, worsened by sweltering temperatures and a drier-than-normal hurricane season. Now drought in almost one-third of the Southeast has been deemed "exceptional" — the most severe drought category.

The difference between the 2007 drought and previous droughts may be the cumulative effect on the non-farming public in the Southeast. Though water issues have simmered off and on through severe droughts since the first long-term event in 1980, the 2007 drought appears to have brought the future need for water by the public versus the need for water for agriculture to what some scribes have dubbed “water wars”.

In North Carolina Federal drought maps show that exceptional drought has spread from the state's eight westernmost counties to 55 counties in the mountains and Piedmont and now stretches from the foothills and Charlotte to parts of the Triad, the Triangle and the Sand Hills.

North Carolina's other 45 counties are experiencing the next three levels of drought — extreme, severe and moderate. An extreme lack of rainfall has left many stream flows faced with all-time record lows and reservoirs far below average for this time of year.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley has noted publicly that many small municipalities in the most drought-plagued counties are nearly out of water. He has directed state agencies to work with the North Carolina League of Municipalities to come up with alternative sources of water for several towns and cities and is trying to enact legislation to mandate water conservation measures throughout most of the state.

"Many communities are suffering the effects of one of the worst droughts we have ever seen," Easley said. "At least one community is already hauling water by truck from other sources and several other towns may need to seek supplemental water sources soon. With no end to this drought in sight, regional cooperation is needed to make sure all North Carolinians will have ample water for everyday needs such as drinking, public health and safety."

The effect of the drought on North Carolina’s farming industry in general and its cattle industry in particular is bordering on catastrophic, according to Littleton, N.C., cattle producer Scott West who says, “we have creeks, ponds and wells drying up. The average cow drinks 30 gallons a day. Multiply that by the number of cattle a farmer has and that’s how many gallons he needs a day. Farmer looking to get out in six or seven years, will get out this year,” West says, adding — and not many will likely get back in the business.”

As of early November, 83 public water systems in North Carolina had enacted mandatory water use restrictions and another 80 have enacted voluntary restrictions. That means that 4.76 million people, or about 70 percent of the state's population in the systems tracked by the state, are under some form of water conservation.

While water usage regulations can be implemented, diversion of water from streams that flow through multiple states has not been nearly so achievable or popular.

South Carolina recently tried and failed to get an injunction against North Carolina's plan to transfer up to 10 million gallons of water a day from the Catawba River to Concord and Kannapolis. Legal experts in both states contend the case has moved a step closer to being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Catawba River cuts across north central North Carolina and is a primary source of water for both public and agricultural operations in the Piedmont area of South Carolina. South Carolinians contend the use of millions of gallons of water to meet the needs of Charlotte and other large cities located on or near the Catawba would rob drought-plagued people downstream of needed water.

The water issue not only divides states, but likewise divides towns and municipalities within states, in an effort of secure adequate water. In the Catawba River case 16 towns and counties in both North Carolina and South Carolina have objected to the water transfer.

South Carolina's legal argument is that the U.S. Constitution’s Doctrine of Equitable Apportionment (each state is a co-equal sovereign and is entitled to equal status and treatment with respect to interstate rivers) was ignored by North Carolina when it approved of the transfer of water.

Even if the Supreme Court does not agree to hear this case, lawmakers in both states could be pressured to enact a balanced framework for deciding interstate disputes over water.

Of all the voices speaking out on water usage, agriculture may be at the bottom of the pecking order.

In South Carolina, the states peach industry was decimated (over 90 percent crop loss) by an Easter 2007 freeze. The industry is highly dependent on irrigation as are other fruit, vegetable, grain and fiber producing enterprises. Fall and winter water usage limitations may be a serious setback for growers trying to overcome devastating crop losses in 2007.

Farther south, Georgia and Alabama are locked in a bitter struggle over water usage rights for the Chattahoochee River, which supplies most of the water for over five million people in metropolitan Atlanta.

The river is the border between Alabama and Georgia for nearly 200 miles as it meanders through rich farming land in southwest Georgia and southeast Alabama.

The peanut industry in both states is particularly dependent on water from the river and streams that form its overall system.

Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue has accused Alabama Governor Bob Riley of back-stabbing in efforts to persuade the U.S. Corps of Engineers to release water from Lake Lanier, which provides much of the water for the Atlanta area, and allow it to fill reservoirs in lakes that border both states.

The Corps releases more than a billion gallons of water each day from Lake Lanier, which supplies more than 3 million Georgia residents with water. The agency bases its water releases on two downstream requirements: the minimum flow needed to supply a coal-fired power plant in Florida and mandates to protect two mussel species in a Florida river.

Alabama Governor Bob Riley says the problem is much more complicated than protecting obscure wildlife species. Riley called for a truce to the intensifying water dispute between Alabama, Georgia and Florida during the current historic drought, but he also warned a reduced flow from Georgia threatens the power grid, jobs and drinking water in Alabama.

As of Nov. 1, Perdue claims the Atlanta metropolitan area is down to less than 70 days of water and that Lake Lanier is losing an inch of shoreline a day during the drought.

Needless to say, none of the political positioning bodes well for agriculture. In Georgia, Hal McCallum who farms over 3,000 acres near Douglas, and serves on the Georgia Water Board, says one remedy presented to the board calls for large wells to tap into the state’s underground aquifers and for this water to be pumped to holding reservoirs to provide water for metropolitan Atlanta.

McCallum and other Georgia farmers have opposed the idea, but admit they are out-numbered, and regardless of the solution, stand to lose access to valuable irrigation water for their crops.

The situation looks to worsen in 2008, according to some weather experts. The recent development of La Niña has significant implications for U.S. weather between now and next spring.

A hallmark of La Niña is a substantial lowering of sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. Unusually cool water in this region typically disrupts the sub-tropical jet stream across the southern tier of the United States, resulting in drier-than-normal weather from autumn into spring.

With many growers in the Southeast reeling from high crop inputs and average to below average crop yields, due primarily to drought in 2007, more dry weather could be catastrophic. Though the Southeast accounts for less than five percent of the nation’s wheat crop, an extension of the drought could mean many no-till and minimum-till growers will be planting in dust.

Peanut production in particular could be hard hit. Low prices have driven many growers away from peanuts and despite contracts that have exceeded $500 per acre, many growers in the Southeast are taking a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude before committing to planting peanuts in 2008 because of the drought and uncertainties over water.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com