The state of Georgia chose not to declare a drought in the Flint River basin this year -- partly because it was too dry.
Declaring a drought in the spring under the Flint River Drought Protection Act gives farmers in the river basin the option of receiving payments from the state to stop irrigating their crops.
But the Georgia Legislature had appropriated no funds for the purpose, and the drought was already so severe by February that reducing irrigation was unlikely to help groundwater levels much, said Gail Cowie, the Environmental Protection Division assistant watershed protection branch chief for the basin. Winter rains usually help refill rivers and aquifers, but that didnt really happen this year.
Now, as the summer grinds on, much of the Flint is in an exceptional drought, the highest category.
We have been having record-setting low flows over the last 18 months in different streams, the river and aquifer levels, said Gordon Rogers, the Flint Riverkeeper. Weve now moved past the point in this particular drought where controlling it makes a difference. Thats a clue we need a system that begins to kick in certain controls as youre easing into a drought and not when youre already in the middle of one.
We had one tool, and it didnt fit the hydrologic conditions we were facing, Cowie said. We were potentially going to be paying farmers to not irrigate land they couldnt irrigate anyway.
As Environmental Protection Division Director Jud Turner promised in February, the state is starting to seek input on how to revise the act to add more options besides direct payments after a drought is in progress.
And the act as written doesnt provide a clear source of funding.
The (EPD) director was correct when he said the act would have had no effect on the situation in southwest Georgia, Rogers said. Its not properly funded and never was. Among other weaknesses, the current payment system is not tied to crop prices, Rogers noted.
This year, that probably meant that very few farmers would have agreed not to water their crops anyway, said Chuck Ellis, cooperative extension agent for Dooly County. The Flint supplies water to some farmers in Dooly, Macon, Crisp and Peach counties in Middle Georgia.
Even if the state had offered payments, for cotton and peanuts the early prices were so good that Im not sure many farmers would have agreed to it anyway, Ellis said.
Corn has been the primary crop needing irrigation so far this summer, and Ellis has not heard of any farmers having too little water to irrigate. But corn is not a major crop in that part of the state compared with cotton and peanuts.
Cowie said environmental officials are looking for local ideas about alternative drought management options for the Flint, like crop insurance or stream flow augmentation, which pumps water into a stream to maintain enough flow to support wildlife.
Rogers said he is optimistic that all the players are interested in considering new approaches, which he said need to include water permit reform, compensation for farmers and perhaps even changes in land use. State regulations now allow almost no conditions or limits on irrigation permits.
The revision (of the act) has to include some limits on either the number of (agricultural) permits or the rhythm and style of the pumping, Rogers said. Dozens of farmer payment options are also worth considering, he said, including one-time buyouts, the use of a revolving fund and more.
The act could also be changed to allow the state to use different approaches in different sections of the river basin, Cowie said.
The worst shortages usually occur in the lower Flint, where groundwater flows and surface water flows are closely tied.
Dividing further into sub-basins might be a good idea because its not equally dry everywhere, Ellis said. But it would be a pretty complicated system for them to find a way to meet every need in every location.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.