Farmers go high-tech in wake of water wars
Guarding every drop critical for those in state’s biggest industry.
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.”
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.
Calvin Perry, superintendent at Stripling Irrigation Research Park, goes through a cornfield to check a moisture sensor.