Farm­ers go high-tech in wake of wa­ter wars

Guard­ing ev­ery drop crit­i­cal for those in state’s big­gest in­dus­try.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Dan Chap­man dchap­[email protected]

CAMILLA — Glenn Cox zips up the rain-swollen Flint River on an alu­minum skiff mar­veling at na­ture’s gifts — the cy­press, sycamores and white oaks on the banks, the tur­tles sun­ning on the rocks and the wa­ter, es­pe­cially the wa­ter, that makes all this abun­dance pos­si­ble.

“This,” says Cox, a fifth­gen­er­a­tion farmer, slow­ing to a crawl and point­ing at the churn­ing, brown river, “is

what we live on.”

The Flint is part of a web of streams, reser­voirs and un­der­ground lakes that city dwellers, in­dus­tries, en­dan­gered species and oys­ter­men down­stream on Florida’s Apalachicola Bay claim as their birthright, too. Florida’s latest “wa­ter wars” law­suit against Ge­or­gia takes di­rect le­gal aim — for the first time — at the re­gion’s farm­ers who col­lec­tively use more wa­ter than metro At­lanta.

Ge­or­gia agri­cul­ture is un­der­go­ing great change with

spe­cialty crops and or­ganic of­fer­ings re­flect­ing Amer­ica’s more dis­cern­ing palate. But the state’s bread-and-but­ter row crops — cot­ton, corn and peanuts — aren’t likely to re­lin­quish their perch atop the state’s $9 bil­liona-year food pyra­mid any­time soon.

Un­der at­tack from Florida and Alabama, as well as Mother Na­ture, though, Ge­or­gia’s rowcrop farm­ers are em­brac­ing tech­nol­ogy to bet­ter shep­herd the most pre­cious of com­modi­ties — wa­ter. They’re bury­ing mois­ture sen­sors un­der fields and re­jig­ger­ing in­dus­trial-size sprin­klers to shoot wa­ter only where needed.

Sci­en­tists are at­tempt­ing to quan­tify how much wa­ter is avail­able above and be­low south­west Ge­or­gia’s red clay fields. The state is in­vest­ing $5 mil­lion in a con­tro­ver­sial en­gi­neer­ing experiment — which, so far, has failed — to cap­ture wa­ter dur­ing times of plenty to store for times of drought. Re­searchers are even drilling wells into deep, un­der­ground aquifers in hopes of se­cur­ing an in­fi­nite sup­ply of wa­ter.

The stakes have never been higher — for south­west Ge­or­gia as well as metro At­lanta, whose right to wa­ter also rests upon some legally squishy ground. Florida’s law­suit prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to ap­point a “spe­cial master” to re­solve the 25-year-old wa­ter war. Mean­while, Gov. Nathan Deal is hold­ing se­cret ne­go­ti­a­tions with his Florida and Alabama coun­ter­parts to do just that.

He’s got a tough row to hoe. South­west Ge­or­gia’s wa­ter con­sump­tion con­tin­ues to rise. And no­body can say with cer­tainty how much wa­ter is used by farm­ers and how much re­mains un­der­ground.

“Ev­ery­body is fight­ing over the same wa­ter,” says Cox, back on land, watch­ing a crew of Haitians harvest his sweet corn. “But we’re all about con­ser­va­tion. If we do our part, it will help ev­ery­one.”

Many have a stake

Streams, reser­voirs, ponds and aquifers sur­round the Flint and Chat­ta­hoochee rivers and hold the lion’s share of wa­ter that sup­ports south­west Ge­or­gia’s corn, cot­ton, peanut, pe­can and soy­bean in­dus­tries.

A gen­er­a­tion ago, Ge­or­gia and the Army Corps of Engi­neers de­cided to di­vert more than a half-bil­lion gal­lons of wa­ter from the Chat­ta­hoochee to slake metro At­lanta’s in­sa­tiable growth. Alabama sued the corps. Florida sided with Alabama. And the never-end­ing wa­ter war be­tween the three states was on.

The dis­pute boils down to an eq­ui­table shar­ing of the wa­ter that starts in North Ge­or­gia. Ev­ery­body and ev­ery­thing, it seems, has a stake: cities; in­dus­tries; en­dan­gered mol­lusks and stur­geon; oys­ter­men; power plants; golf cour­ses; kayak­ers; and farm­ers. The quar­rel fur­ther de­te­ri­o­rates dur­ing times of drought when the streams run low and are drawn down by wa­ter­hun­gry farm­ers.

In the 1960s, for ex­am­ple, the Flint typ­i­cally flowed at 2,000 to 4,000 cu­bic feet per sec­ond dur­ing the sum­mer months. In the drought sum­mer of 2011, the river fell to a record low of 656 cfs, ac­cord­ing to the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy.

A year later, Ge­or­gia im­posed a mora­to­rium on new well per­mits for the Flori­dan aquifer, the main ground­wa­ter source for the Flint River Basin.

At the time, farm­ers held 6,500 per­mits to draw wa­ter from the Flori­dan, the Flint and other streams. Their wells ir­ri­gated 900,000 acres of crop­land — larger than the en­tire state of Rhode Is­land.

The edict didn’t keep farm­ers from find­ing new wa­ter sources; they just dug deeper. The EPD has is­sued an ad­di­tional 237 per­mits since the mora­to­rium, al­low­ing farm­ers to send pipes into the Clai­borne and Cre­ta­ceous aquifers. An ad­di­tional 40,000 acres are now ir­ri­gated. And over­all wa­ter us­age through­out the Flint basin is inch­ing back up to pre-mora­to­rium lev­els.

Flows down, wa­ter use up

South­west Ge­or­gia, from the sky, ap­pears as some alien patch­work of per­fectly coiffed cir­cles de­mar­cated by the oc­ca­sional pine grove, dirt road or lazy stream. Zoom in and you’ll find 300-foot-long cen­ter-pivot sprin­klers at­tached to well­heads spray­ing wa­ter on corn, cot­ton and peanuts.

About 80 per­cent of south­west Ge­or­gia farms em­ploy piv­ots. Agri­cul­ture — not metro At­lanta or eva­po­ra­tion — uses most of the wa­ter be­tween North Ge­or­gia and Florida, on an av­er­age an­nual ba­sis, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port by the Apala-chicola-Chat­ta­hoochee-Flint Stake­hold­ers, a pri­vate re­search group ded­i­cated to a fair shar­ing of the wa­ter.

The Flint’s flow has de­clined by more than 30 per­cent since the ad­vent of the sprin­klers, the group re­ported in May, with most of the re­duc­tion due to agri­cul­ture’s grow­ing de­mand for ground­wa­ter.

Stake­hold­ers ques­tion tap­ping the lower aqui- fers for ir­ri­ga­tion. They point out that the aquifers and streams are all in­ter­con­nected, so when the Flori­dan runs low, for ex­am­ple, less wa­ter is likely to rise up to the Flint River.

“Poor man­age­ment strate­gies cou­pled with a false par­a­digm that an end­less sup­ply of wa­ter ex­isted re­sulted in a sig­nif­i­cantly over per­mit­ted river basin,” the stake­hold­ers’ re­port says.

It would help to know how much wa­ter is ac­tu­ally in the Flint, the streams and the aquifers of south­west Ge­or­gia. It would also help, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing a drought, to know how much is be­ing used. While stake­hold­ers and Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia sci­en­tists have made strides to­ward an­swer­ing the first ques­tion, they’re less cer­tain about the sec­ond.

“There are ar­eas in this re­gion that do not al­low the den­sity of the with­drawals that are oc­cur­ring,” said Woody Hicks, a re­tired fed­eral hy­drol­o­gist and ACFS board mem­ber. “Per­mit­ting is tied purely to acreage and not to a daily av­er­age or a monthly max­i­mum. That’s both im­pre­cise and not man­age­able.” Florida agrees. Ge­or­gia, in re­sponse, blames Florida for its own wa­ter woes. Ge­or­gia claims one Pan­han­dle county dou­bled the num­ber of ir­ri­gated acres be­tween 2002 and 2007. And the 16 coun­ties in the North­west Florida wa­ter dis­trict have added 320 well per­mits over the past decade.

“Florida’s us­age is cer­tainly not as large as ours, but we need to make sure their per­mit­ting sys­tem and tech­nol­ogy pro­grams are as up to par as ours,” said Gor­don Rogers, the Flint River­keeper. “There’s enough wa­ter in the sys­tem, even dur­ing ma­jor droughts, to sat­isfy ev­ery­body’s needs.”

Farm­ing by smart­phone

One re­cent af­ter­noon, with storm clouds on the hori­zon, Calvin Perry, a UGA re­searcher, dis­ap­peared into a Camilla corn­field. His goal: de­ter­mine how much — or, prefer­ably, how lit­tle — ir­ri­gated wa­ter would be needed to make a good crop.

“We’re pretty sat­u­rated right now and don’t need any rain,” Perry said upon eye­balling mois­ture sen­sors buried 8, 16 and 24 inches be­low ground. “We ir­ri­gated this field two days ago and won’t need to again un­til next week.”

Over the past eight years, re­searchers with UGA, the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy, the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture and the Flint River Soil and Wa­ter Con­ser­va­tion Dis­trict have worked to con­serve wa­ter while en­sur­ing high crop yields. They’ve de­ployed soil mois­ture sen­sors that send up-to-the-minute data to farm­ers, via smart­phones, who then pro­gram their piv­ots to spray or not. Thun­der­storm five miles away? Turn the spig­ots off. Peanuts about to wilt? Turn ’em on.

The on­slaught of piv­ots, though, posed new chal­lenges. Sprin­klers sent plumes of wa­ter high into the sky where much of it evap­o­rated or blew away be­fore reach­ing the ground. Roughly 100,000 noz­zles were retro­fit­ted to drib­ble the wa­ter lower to the ground at a lower pres­sure to re­duce evapo- ra­tion and wind loss.

Perry and col­leagues are work­ing on more ad­vanced GPS-con­trolled piv­ots that con­serve even more wa­ter. So­called vari­able rate ir­ri­ga­tion, or VRI, de­ter­mines when and where wa­ter is spread. Roads, rocks and drainage ditches don’t need wa­ter.

Re­searchers are also try­ing to link up-to-the-minute soil and tem­per­a­ture in­for­ma­tion to the piv­ots. Perry, who runs the C.M. Stripling Ir­ri­ga­tion Re­search Park, es­ti­mates each souped-up pivot can re­duce wa­ter con­sump­tion by 15 per­cent. But only 125 or so VRI sys­tems are de­ployed statewide.

The stake­hold­ers’ group says farm­ers have “made tremen­dous strides in wa­ter-use ef­fi­ciency over the last 15plus years.”

“How­ever,” its re­port adds, “con­ser­va­tion and ef­fi­ciency that leads only to ever-in­creas­ing con­sump­tive use is en­vi­ron­men­tally, and ul­ti­mately eco­nom­i­cally, un­sus­tain­able.”

The stake­hold­ers want 80 per­cent of all cen­ter piv­ots in the Flint River basin to em­brace VRI and other wa­ter-sav­ing tech­nolo­gies by 2020. The in­ter­play be­tween ground and sur­face wa­ters should be fur­ther stud­ied. And the amount of wa­ter in all south­west Ge­or­gia streams should be in­creased by 15 per­cent.

Cox, the sweet corn and peanut farmer, doesn’t cot­ton to any whole­sale re­duc­tion in ir­ri­ga­tion. He hasn’t drilled a new well since 1999. He uses soil sen­sors and VRI. Wa­ter is his lifeblood.

“It’s all a bal­anc­ing act and we’ve got to share,” said Cox, who lives in the un­in­cor­po­rated town of Hope­ful. “But this is our liv­ing.”

BRANT SANDER­LIN PHO­TOS / AJC

Glenn Cox, a fifth-gen­er­a­tion farmer, guides his boat up the Flint River. Farm­ers and other in­dus­tries de­pend on the Flint. “Ev­ery­body is fight­ing over the same wa­ter” says Cox.

A smart­phone app gives the mois­ture content in a corn­field owned by Glenn Cox.

A mois­ture sen­sor placed in a corn­field gath­ers and trans­mits soil mois­ture lev­els and other in­for­ma­tion to the farmer, who can make ad­just­ments to his wa­ter­ing sched­ule.

BRANT SANDER­LIN PHO­TOS / BSANDER­[email protected]

Calvin Perry, su­per­in­ten­dent at Stripling Ir­ri­ga­tion Re­search Park, goes through a corn­field to check a mois­ture sen­sor.

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