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The Natural Georgia Series: The Flint River

Design by Lenz Design, Decatur, Georgia.

Fighting Over the Flint: Balancing Human Demands with Ecosystem Needs

by Pamela P. Holliday

With water becoming more scarce and valuable in the Flint River Basin, there is increasing competition among uses—including agricultural irrigation. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.comImagine the state of Georgia has a bank account. Many people have access to the account and permission to use the money. Some of them record their transactions and others don't. Money constantly comes into the account but no one keeps track of how much and when it arrives. New people constantly want access to the account. The state chooses to say yes to some and no to others, but those are difficult decisions. No one knows how much money is in the account at any given time so it is difficult to manage.

It sounds irresponsible, like something Georgia citizens wouldn't allow our state to do, but water in the Flint River Basin is being managed like the money in that bank account. The people who have access to the groundwater and surface water are permit holders and stakeholders including domestic users, municipal users, industrial users, agricultural users, anglers, canoeists, developers, property owners, and many others. The state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) issues permits to water users who withdraw more than 100,000 gallons per day, but not all of those permit holders, namely agricultural users, are required to report back how much water they use. Scientists know that once the Flint River crosses the fall line, there is interplay between surface and groundwater, but no one knows how much groundwater contributes to in-stream flow. EPD must make decisions on whether or not to grant new water use permits without knowing how much water is available in the river or from the area groundwater supplies.

As it struggles to conduct new research and learn more about its water resources, Georgia is making other water promises, too. State negotiators are meeting with representatives from Alabama and Florida in the tri-state "water wars" to decide how water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) river basins will be shared. Both river basins originate in Georgia, and its downstream neighbors are concerned that as Georgia prospers it will use more than its fair share of water and there won't be enough left to fuel their growth.

There are many questions about how to best manage water in the Flint River Basin. Many stakeholders believe they must decide how to divide it in a way that keeps municipalities growing and attracts new industry to the state while also maintaining in-stream flows for recreation and allowing southwest Georgia farmers to irrigate their crops. Also, if humans take too much water out of the river and its tributaries, especially during a drought when in-stream flows are already low, the natural system could starve. With less water in the river, water temperatures rise, which can interfere with the feeding and reproductive habits of fish. Less water means less food for mussels, which have a limited ability to move and depend on water to bring food to them.

Sandy Tucker, field supervisor for the Georgia Ecological Services Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says, "Developers are asking 'how much water can we take out of the river,' but biologists are asking 'how much water does the river need to keep natural systems intact while also meeting agricultural and community development needs.' The question becomes, how can you develop your water resources without doing in your water resources."

As state lawmakers and advisors work to develop a framework for Georgia's first comprehensive water management plan, representatives from EPD are working with stakeholders in the Flint River Basin to balance the demands of humans with the needs of the ecosystem. The rest of the state is watching. While each river basin is unique and faces its own challenges, how management questions are resolved in the Flint River Basin will undoubtedly influence the future of water policy in Georgia.

Water Becomes More Scarce and Valuable

Several factors brought the Flint River Basin to the forefront of Georgia's water management discussions. The first was the tri-state "water war" negotiations. Since 1992, the states of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida have been formally negotiating how to best allocate the states' shared water resources. Discussions are taking place about how to allocate water in the ACF and ACT river basins. After failing to meet and then extending numerous deadlines, in January 2002, negotiators agreed "in principle" to a formula for dividing water in the ACF basin and planned to work out wording of the pact by March 18, 2002. In March, state representatives signed an agreement to extend negotiations another 90 days. Once negotiators settle on the wording of the formula, a 60-day comment period will follow with public hearings in all three states. In the ACT talks, negotiators have extended their deadline to January 2003 to agree on an allocation formula.

One key issue in the negotiations is Georgia's promise that the water flowing from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers into Florida will never drop below a certain "minimum flow" at the Georgia-Florida state line. In order to make such a promise, Georgia has to know how much water flows down the two rivers and how much water users pull out. The amount of water flowing in those rivers changes depending on many factors, including whether or not it has been a particularly rainy or dry year. It is also difficult to predict in-stream flow because of the way the water permitting process works. Georgia EPD knows how much water it has permitted farmers to use, but it does not know how much water they are using. And, when it looked at its groundwater and surface-water models, EPD decided it needed more field data to improve the agency's ability to predict water flows. There are also still questions about the interaction of groundwater and surface water in the Flint River Basin. For example, according to hydrologists when farmers pull water out of the Upper Floridan aquifer, spring flows from the aquifer into the Flint River may decline. But they do not know the exact relationship. In other words, scientists do not know the exact effect pumping a given amount of water out of the aquifer has on river flows.

Woody Hicks is a scientist at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center who retired as a hydrologist from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in 2000. He says, "The water war negotiations have brought to light data inadequacies, and our lack of understanding of the groundwater/surface water relationship. The negotiations are forcing us to be better stewards of our water resources."

Georgia is learning there will be costs associated with gaining a better understanding of the state's water resources. Dr. Jim Kundell is policy director for the University of Georgia's River Basin Science and Policy Center and the science advisor to the Georgia General Assembly. He says Georgia's neighbor state, Florida, is "investing a great deal more money into managing its water resources than Georgia." As a result, Florida has very accurate data about what water it has and how it is being used. Florida is now divided into five water management districts that closely monitor water quantity and conduct research. Kundell says when he visited the southwest Florida district in 1999, it had the same number of employees as all of Georgia EPD. Paul DeLoach, a member of the Southwest Georgia Water Resources Task Force and community affairs manger with Miller Brewing Company, says, "The groundwater research budget in any one of those districts is bigger than all of Georgia EPD's research budget."

Georgia's Drought

The second factor that contributed to the Flint River's prominence in Georgia's water management discussions is the drought that began in Georgia in May 1998. According to the USGS, during the 1999 and 2000 water years (October 1998 through September 2000), south Georgia experienced record drought conditions. Tributaries and rivers flowed at record-low levels, and stream segments that are normally perennial dried up completely or were reduced to intermittent chains of pools. Because the Flint River is sustained by shallow aquifer discharge, human withdrawals from the Upper Floridan aquifer exacerbated the low flows associated with unusually low precipitation levels. In November 2001, Georgia's state climatologist continued to report record low stream flows on the middle and lower Flint River and the drought continued into spring 2002.

The drought has been a time of crises, and according to Dr. Elizabeth Blood, education and outreach ecologist at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, it has galvanized groups. Now that there is less water to go around, people-including state officials-are paying more attention to how it is used. Blood says, "People realized if they didn't come together and participate in the water planning policy process, the process would go on without them."

Volunteers formed the Southwest Georgia Water Resources Task Force, a group of stakeholders who work together to encourage citizens and groups to participate in open discussion on water-resource issues in southwest Georgia. To date, the Task Force has sponsored seven summits to raise awareness of water issues, educate citizens, and develop water policy leaders. According to Blood, one of the founders, the group is a model for stakeholders in other river basins. Georgia Governor Roy Barnes has demonstrated his support for the Task Force's work by allocating money from his discretionary funds to sponsor its first two summits.

One result of the drought was the Flint River Drought Protection Act, which also brought statewide attention to southwest Georgia water issues. In the 2000 session of the Georgia General Assembly, lawmakers passed the act, which aims to preserve a minimum flow in the Flint River by paying farmers in southwest Georgia not to irrigate their land from the area streams during severe drought years, as declared by EPD. If the severe drought declaration is made, an auction process involving all eligible agricultural irrigators is implemented and must be completed by March 30. The auction process is used to set a fair market value for the water farmers are voluntarily agreeing not to use.

In 2001, a drought was declared, and EPD used a real-time computer auction process. On a certain day, farmers went to computer stations set up throughout southwest Georgia and electronically submitted bids to EPD for how much money they believed water was worth to them per acre. In other words, how much money would the farmer want EPD to pay him, per acre, to offset the costs and risks of not irrigating his land for a year. The director of EPD considered the bids individually (taking into account factors such as the crop grown on the land, production costs, and commodity prices) and decided how much money to pay each farmer per acre. As a result, irrigation was eliminated on 33,101 acres for the balance of the year, affecting 208 permits for surface-water use at an average price of $135 per acre. The total cost to the state was $4.5 million. Because Georgia does not know how much water was traditionally used on those 33,101 acres, it does not know exactly how much water it "saved" by taking the land out of irrigation. EPD estimates the amount at 130 million gallons per day.

A drought was also declared in 2002, but the action process was slightly different. EPD used a mail-in bid process, and agreed to an average bid price of $128 per acre, slightly lower than in 2001. A greater number of acres, 40,000, was taken out of irrigation, and 272 permits were affected. The total cost to the state of Georgia for the 2002 auction was $5.2 million.

The Flint River Drought Protection Act has been popular among some in southwest Georgia. Jim Hook of the University of Georgia College of Agriculture & Environmental Sciences, National Environmentally Sound Production Agriculture Laboratory (NESPAL), says, "For the first time, it brought the farm community into the management of the river. It was an agreement between farmers and EPD to protect flow in the river." Others call the Flint River Drought Protection Act "farm welfare," and believe it was a step in the wrong direction for Georgia water policy. Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, says, "This act put a dollar value on water, and undoing that will be extremely important."

Herring questions the legality of paying farmers for water that they get from the state for free. They don't pay for the permit to use it, but now the state pays them not to use it. "Plus, if you don't know how much water is being used, how can you put a price tag on it?" Herring says.

Money to pay the farmers comes from the state's liability settlement with the tobacco industry. Herring says part of that money was to be spent helping tobacco farmers adjust to not growing tobacco, not given to farmers in southwest Georgia who grow cotton, peanuts, and soybeans. "This is welfare economics gone hog wild down on the farm," Herring says.

Water Use Permits and Development Pressures

In 1999, EPD stopped issuing agriculture permits for groundwater use from the Upper Floridan aquifer in the Flint River Basin and for surface water use of streams and creeks in the Flint River Basin-another factor that brought statewide attention to water management issues in southwest Georgia. Many are afraid the moratorium will become a permanent restriction, leading to new questions about where water will come from for future economic development opportunities. If no new water permits are available in southwest Georgia, some are suggesting new laws be passed to allow transfers of water rights or water-use permits. Environmentalists worry that if such new laws are passed, water will no longer belong to the people of the state. They say it will become a commodity and the environment will suffer. John Sibley, president of the Georgia Conservancy, strongly believes water should be held in the public trust. He says, "Some resources are so essential to the common good that they must be treated as public resources, not owned by any entity separately, and managed by the state for the good of all."

Finally, the Flint River Basin is in the spotlight because the Atlanta metro region is in its headwaters. As the metro area sprawls southward, stakeholders downstream worry it will suck the river dry. According to Bob Kerr, Georgia's chief negotiator in the interstate water war, the Atlanta metro region will have to start looking for a new water source by the year 2030: It will outgrow the Chattahoochee and Lake Lanier by then. As their populations grow, some counties south of Atlanta are counting on the Flint River to provide more and more water. They are proposing to build reservoirs on Flint River tributaries to store excess water when in-stream flows are high and use that water when flows are low. But stakeholders downstream are concerned about the Atlanta metro region using the Flint to fuel its growth. They know there is only a finite amount of water and wonder if there will be enough left flowing in the river to satisfy their needs.

Water in the Flint River Basin has become more scarce and precious resource because of decreasing supply and increasing demand. As a result, scientists are conducting additional research to quantify problems and lawmakers are considering new water policies. This new shortage of water that stems from the ongoing drought also has led to questions about water rights. Should Georgia law allow transfers of water rights or water use permits? Should a water market be established? As stakeholders struggle to answer these questions and balance their water needs, their work promises to have lasting effects on the natural resources of the Flint River Basin. Jerry McCollum, a wildlife biologist and President and CEO of the Georgia Wildlife Federation warns, "If natural flows are altered too much to suit human needs, stakeholders must also ask what the effects will be on aquatic plants and animals. There is no question that we now face the potential to permanently alter the ecology of this river basin by diminishing its natural in-stream flow. The implementation of water markets, the selling of water or water rights to the higher bidder, and the construction of water-storage reservoirs increases this threat to the river, manifold."

Reservoirs

One way to manage water in the Flint River Basin is to build impoundments and create reservoirs. Proponents of reservoirs say they allow users to store water when flows are high and then use and release the water when flows are low. Those who oppose impoundments say they interrupt the natural flow regime of rivers. Natural high and low flow periods, which native plants and animals adapt to and depend on, no longer exist. The flow of the river is controlled by humans and dictated by humans' needs.

Talk of building reservoirs along the Flint River is nothing new. As early as 1955, there was a proposal to build a dam on the Flint River near Thomaston, Georgia, near a place called Sprewell Bluff. Congress authorized the project in 1963 and began allocating money toward the estimated construction cost of over $200 million. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers backed the proposed dam and promised great returns on the investment of taxpayer dollars-benefits such as hydroelectric power, lake recreation, and downstream flood control. But in 1972, at the urging of concerned citizens, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter began asking questions about the Sprewell Bluff dam project. He questioned the Corps' cost/benefit analysis and directed an independent analysis by Georgia geologists, archeologists, hydrologists, historians, and plant and wildlife experts. When he received the reports, Carter announced the Corps had "grossly misrepresented both benefits and costs. It did not look for least-cost solutions, just dam solutions." In 1974, Carter vetoed the Sprewell Bluff dam project. In doing so, he not only saved a unique, free-flowing stretch of Georgia river but also led a national effort to more closely examine Corps of Engineers dam projects.

The upper stretch of the Flint River is one of only 40 free-flowing river reaches longer than 125 miles remaining in the contiguous 48 states. The Flint meets its first impoundment, the Crisp County power dam on Lake Blackshear, approximately 225 river miles from its headwaters. There are two other dams on the main stem: the Georgia Power dam near Albany and the Jim Woodruff Dam at Lake Seminole. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there are three major impoundments on tributaries of the Flint River: Shoal Creek Reservoir in Clayton County, Horton Creek Reservoir in Fayette County, and Rush Creek Reservoir in Talbot County.

Most experts agree there probably will not be another dam built on the main stem of the Flint River. According to a paper published by the Georgia Water Planning and Policy Centers called "Enhancing In-stream Flows in the Flint River Basin," as a result of environmental legislation passed over the past 25 years as well as changes in public attitudes, it is generally accepted that new, large, main-stream reservoirs are a thing of the past. The paper goes on to say that if reservoirs are to be considered, such consideration will most likely have to focus on relatively small impoundments on off-main-stream tributaries. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, consultants in Fayette County are considering such an impoundment on Line Creek, and the city of Griffin has received a draft permit to build an off-main-stream reservoir on Stillwater Creek in Pike County. If the city meets certain conditions laid out by the Corps, Griffin is poised to receive a final permit (called a 404 permit) to build a 450-acre reservoir designed to meet the city's water needs for the next 50 years. The project is expected to cost $35 to $40 million.

The reservoir on Stillwater Creek is planned as an off-stream storage reservoir. That means water will be pumped from the main stem of the Flint and stored in the reservoir on this very small tributary-small enough to step across on most days. Once completed, city officials plan to pump approximately 8 million gallons per day from the Flint into the reservoir. As the demand for water increases, Griffin plans to increase that amount to 35 million gallons per day. According to Ron Harris, the civil engineer with Engineering Strategies Incorporated in charge of Griffin's reservoir project, that represents 5 percent of the Flint River's average daily flow. He says the pumps are planned to have a maximum capacity of 50 million gallons per day.

Harris says, "The amount pumped out of the river varies according to what is available in the river. Under low-flow conditions, Griffin stops pumping altogether. Those conditions are defined thoroughly in the 404 permit."

The city of Griffin will not only use the water to meet its own needs, but also it will sell water from the reservoir to other users in the area. Its list of customers includes the cities of Zebulon and Williamson, along with Spalding County, Pike County, and portions of Meriwether and Coweta counties.

Opponents of the dam who live downstream are afraid of what Griffin's proposed reservoir will do to an already-low-flowing Flint River. Jim McDaniel owns the Flint River Outdoor Center, which includes canoe, raft, and tube rentals, a store, a lodge, and a campground. His business, which opened in 1979, is located south of Griffin just above the fall line and Yellow Jacket Shoals, one of the most unique and picturesque sections of the Flint. McDaniel says the dry summers have been hard on business, and he is concerned the city of Griffin's plans "will just about shut down canoeing in the summer."

McDaniel understands the conditions for pumping spelled out in the 404 permit, but he believes if the people of Griffin get thirsty enough and they have the capacity to pump, the state can always change its mind and allow them to pump more. McDaniel is also concerned about the precedent the Griffin reservoir sets. Instead of encouraging people to use less water or move to places where more water is available, he is afraid more cities will want to build the type of reservoirs Griffin is building. McDaniel is concerned his portion of the Flint River will become a mere trickle due to poor water management upstream.

For approximately three years, Griffin's plans were in jeopardy because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) believed the project threatened an endangered species of mussel in the Flint River, the oval pigtoe (Pleurobema pyriforme). According to Sandy Tucker of the USFWS, the agency worked with the city of Griffin "to help it find ways to build its project so aquatic resources are not harmed as much." Tucker says, "If we could control the project, there would be more water left in the river, but that's not our role. That's the Corps' role."

Tucker believes as stakeholders consider building off-main-stream reservoirs, like Griffin's project, it's important to look at the big picture. The main stem of the river may still be free flowing, but there is not as much water, and that can be devastating for aquatic resources. She says, "Maybe we're not destroying the main stem, but we have to pay attention to how much water we're taking out."

She also agrees with McDaniel that it may not always be the best idea to allow cities to build reservoirs so they can accumulate water and attract new industry and residents. Tucker says, "The city of Griffin says, 'If we get the water, then people will come here,' but the other side of that is maybe you shouldn't have the water so people will go where the water is."

Water is power and money because it enables growth. Reservoirs are one way to ensure users have access to water-even in drought conditions-but reservoirs also have costs. They change the natural flow regime of rivers, and stakeholders do not always agree on whether or not that is a good thing to do. Scientists are still struggling to understand how much water can be taken out of a river without harming aquatic resources, and downstream users will likely always feel threatened by such projects.

Managing Water for Agriculture

In the Flint River Basin, an important issue is managing the amount of water used by agriculture. Agriculture, especially irrigated agriculture, is important to the rural economy of southwest Georgia and the national economy. Jim Hook of NESPAL estimates the total year 2000 farmgate income (money farmers receive for commodities sold) attributable to irrigation in the 27 counties that lie in the Flint River Basin to be $880 million. Assuming standard economic activity generated by this income, the irrigation meant $2.3 billion in economic activity in these rural Georgia counties. Hook says if irrigation were unavailable, especially in a drought year like 2000, these numbers would be significantly less: There would be no vegetable or ornamental production, only 40 percent of the current fruit and nut production, and only 30 percent of the current row and forage crop production.

In these 27 counties, Georgia EPD has issued 3,026 surface water withdrawal permits (550 are considered withdrawals from the Flint River or its tributaries, and the rest are from on-farm ponds catching runoff), and 6,026 groundwater permits to farmers. Their permits allow up to 1,131,000 acres to be irrigated. Even though only 550 permit holders draw water directly out of the Flint and its tributaries, everyone who uses surface and groundwater in the region has an effect on the Flint's in-stream flow. That is because of the unique relationship between surface water, springs, and aquifers in southwest Georgia.

While scientists are just beginning to understand exactly how it all works, they know that water enters the ground as either rain or surface water in what are called recharge areas. Water percolates into the limestone bedrock that forms the Upper Floridan aquifer, which underlies this region of the state. Water moves through the limestone caverns and caves until a well is drilled to bring it to the surface, or until it bubbles up through a natural hole and becomes a spring. Scientists know that during the late summer and fall months between Albany and Lake Seminole, the water volume in the Flint doubles. Most of this increased flow comes from springs from the Upper Floridan aquifer. They also know that if water users in the region, not just those right next to the river, draw too much water out of the aquifer, these springs can start to dry up, having serious effects on the river.

Because many of the large water users in the region are farmers, one key to managing water in the Flint River Basin is developing a better understanding of the amount of agricultural water use. While EPD knows how many water withdrawal permits it has issued to farmers in southwest Georgia, it does not know how much water those farmers are using because their permits do not require them to meter and report use.

Anyone in Georgia who is an agricultural, municipal, or industrial water user of more than 100,000 gallons per day must apply for a permit from EPD. Groundwater permits and surface water permits for municipal and industrial users identify, among other things, a permit expiration date and withdrawal limits or average withdrawal rates. Municipal and industrial users are required to submit water use reports. Agricultural users, on the other hand, are not required to submit water use reports, and their permits have no expiration dates. Georgia law began requiring agricultural use permits in 1988. Applicants who were able to establish that their use existed prior to 1988 and whose applications were received prior to July 1991 are permitted for the operating capacity of their irrigation system. Other applications are reviewed and granted to ensure the farmer's right to a "reasonable use" of water. EPD says it grants permits with consideration for protecting the integrity of the resource and the water rights of permitted users.

Jim Hook says, "Agricultural permits are not issued for quantities. Instead, the state has permitted the capacity of users' pumps, but no farmer operates his pump every day. As a result, Georgia has committed a phenomenal amount of water to agriculture, but it doesn't know how much water is being used so it had to start making guesses."

He says agriculture is suffering now because of the way the permitting process works. Critics point the finger at farmers for using more than their fair share of water and new water use permits for agriculture are hard to come by. Hook says, "The permits have no expiration date, so if a landowner is no longer farming, water is still allocated to him. New, young farmers are being locked out of the business. Because there are no reporting requirements, the state makes generous estimates of agricultural water use. It makes farmers look like they use much more than they do."

Researching Water Use

There are efforts underway to quantify use. At NESPAL, Hook is involved in several different studies designed to track irrigation in Georgia. For one monitoring study, NESPAL randomly surveys permit holders. The study is now in its third year, and Hook says, "Overall, what we are seeing is that water use is significantly less than what we would have thought."

The study does not provide all the information Hook and others would like to have. Researchers do not know why farmers make the decisions they do. "Some use lots of water and others use little," Hook says. "It's hard to use that information to predict what will happen in the future."

Another study involves automated monitoring of 175 irrigation systems in the Flint River Basin. Cell phone signals are used to relay data when irrigation systems are turned on and off and to tell researchers how much water is used. Data from this study promises to help scientists better predict Flint River in-stream flows. Hook says, "Once we know what percentage of farmers are irrigating simultaneously, we can look at how that affects groundwater. The impact is different if farmers are irrigating at random or if factors like weather patterns are causing them to irrigate at the same time."

Hook says data gathered from his research will be reported back to different state agencies and used several different ways. Georgia will use it to report water use to its tri-state neighbors as part of the ongoing water wars. And, state officials can use the information to manage water, including making better seasonal water use projections.

Georgia officials are also counting on data from the Southwest Georgia Sound Science Initiative to help them better manage water in the Flint River Basin. According to Georgia State Geologist Bill McLemore, the initiative, which began in 1999, has two parts. Part one is to determine how much ground and surface water comes into Lake Seminole and how much goes out. The amount of water coming out of Lake Seminole is Georgia's water contribution to Florida. Part two is to upgrade ground and surface water models to give the state better predicting capabilities.

McLemore says the Southwest Georgia Sound Science Initiative began because of the tri-state water negotiations and other issues: "EPD modeling showed that if irrigation was maxed out, farmers could pump the Flint River dry. That leads us to ask how good the models are."

Research for the Southwest Georgia Sound Science Initiative will be completed in June 2004. Rob McDowell, coordinator of the Agricultural Permitting Unit of EPD says the agency will use that research as well as information from Jim Hook at NESPAL and others to put together the Flint River Water Development and Conservation Plan by the year 2005. Once that plan is released, EPD will determine if the moratorium on agricultural water use permits in the Flint River Basin can be lifted.

In the meantime, fear that the moratorium is a permanent condition grows among farmers in southwest Georgia, so much so that it is affecting the price of land. Already, land with a water use permit is more valuable than land without one. It sells for a higher price and most people believe the difference in value will only continue to grow in the future.

The Farmers' Perspective

Southwest Georgia farmers Tim, Lamar, and Ray Shirah say current water shortages aren’t the result of increased water usage in southwest Georgia—it is the growth of metro areas above them. Says Tim Shirah, “We’re not using as much water per well on our farm as we did in 1977. Can Atlanta say that? Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.comTim Shirah's family owns 3,500 acres in Baker, Mitchell, and Decatur counties in southwest Georgia. Approximately 2,000 acres of the land are cultivated and 1,500 acres are irrigated. He feels farmers in southwest Georgia are being unfairly targeted in efforts to reduce water use in Georgia. He says running his irrigation system costs him money (in electricity, fuel, etc.) so he only uses the minimum amount of water he needs, and that amount is not increasing. Shirah says, "The problem isn't increased water usage in southwest Georgia, it's the growth of metro areas above us. We're not using as much water per well on our farm as we did in 1977. Can Atlanta say that? I don't think so. That's the problem."

Shirah agrees there are ways to help farmers use less water, including developing more efficient irrigation techniques, but he says the state also needs to develop incentives to reduce water consumption in metro areas. He is participating in the research studies designed to quantify agricultural water use and understands that is the only way Georgia can be sure all stakeholders, including farmers downstream, have the water they need.

Winston "Wink" Lane, a 76-year-old retired Ford dealer and farmer in Colquitt County has a different theory than Shirah on why water is scarce in the Flint River Basin. He grew up in southwest Georgia and says he has seen conditions drier than the current ones in the era before widespread irrigation. Lane believes people are blaming farmers for using too much water, but he says groundwater is scarce because of the drought. "In 1934, all the wells went dry. We didn't have any rain, and there wasn't any water in the aquifer. We haven't had any rain this year, and there isn't any water down there. Farmers aren't the problem; the drought is."

Lane is not convinced complicated water allocation plans are the answer. He believes the water shortage problems in southwest Georgia will solve themselves when it starts raining again. He says, "People have got to trust in the Good Lord and go to church on Sunday, because nature is going to take care of everything."

Water Rights

Another way to manage water is to allow water permits to be bought and sold-to have a water market. The marketing of water rights is common in western states, but it would be something new to Georgia and, in fact, to the eastern United States. According to Jim Kundell of UGA, allowing water rights to be bought and sold would be a significant shift in Georgia's public policy. In a paper he coauthored for the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, UGA, called "Whose Water Is It?" Kundell says the shift involves looking at water "as a commodity that can be bartered in the marketplace rather than a resource managed by the state in trust for the people."

Under Georgia's current water permitting system, decisions are based primarily on who requests the use of water first. Anyone who needs water for an industry or municipality, requests a water withdrawal permit from EPD. EPD evaluates each permit as it is submitted and decides which permits to grant or deny. According to Kundell, this approach works well when there is an excess of water-the situation in Georgia up until now. As demand begins to surpass supply, Georgia must look at new ways of deciding who can use water. One way to decide is with a market approach. The person who is willing to pay the most for the water is given the right to use it. Kundell says a market system does support efficient use of water and conservation of water resources because people have to pay for the water they use and as a result, they are less likely to waste it. There are concerns associated with this approach, however, including fears that an unregulated monopoly with the potential for rate gouging could develop. Some environmentalists are philosophically opposed to the idea of water as a commodity. They believe water belongs to all Georgians as well as to the plants and animals that depend on it for life. They say the right to use water should not be one that can be bought and sold, like a property right.

Water Law: East vs. West

When James Edward Oglethorpe arrived from England to establish a new colony on the coast of Georgia, he brought with him the basis for Georgia's existing water laws-the riparian doctrine. It is based on the English common law theory of riparian rights and dictates that water rights are acquired simply by owning property along a waterway. The property owner has a right to "reasonable use," which means he can withdraw and use water from the passing stream as long as he leaves enough water for the reasonable use of his downstream neighbors. Rights to groundwater in Georgia are also subject to the rule of reasonable use, but the definition there is a little different. In the case of groundwater, reasonable use allows for unlimited withdrawals by the owner of overlying lands. However, any reasonable uses that negatively impact other users are considered unlawful. In the case of both ground and surface water, people's rights are "usufructuary," which means they have a right to enjoy the water, but they have no property right to it.

Water law in the West, where water markets exist in 17 states, developed under a different doctrine called the prior appropriations doctrine. This doctrine was developed in the West largely because of a scarcity of water resources that did not exist in the East. According to this doctrine, those who first make beneficial use of the water claim a right to its continued use and do not have to take into consideration the water needs of later claimants, including downstream property owners. In other words, whoever gets there first owns the water, just as someone would own property. For many years, the water rights were tied to the land. Recently, however, in many states water rights have been separated from the land. In this situation, the process for transferring water rights from one owner to another is much like the process of transferring property rights-they are bought and sold in a market.

Eastern states, including Georgia, are only now experiencing water scarcity and the need to conserve and make water use more efficient. Georgia has begun to analyze the appropriate policies to deal with water scarcity. One option being proposed is water markets. As demand increases, water uses that were once compatible come into conflict, and in some cases the riparian doctrine is considered inadequate for resolving disputes. In his paper, Kundell explains these shortcomings: Under the riparian doctrine there is no system for establishing priorities among uses, the riparian doctrine fails to recognize that cumulative reasonable uses can adversely affect the resource, and the riparian doctrine does not take into account how reasonable groundwater use can affect surface water flow and vice versa.

One of the limitations of Georgia water law is being realized in the Flint River Basin in southwest Georgia. The paper "Water Rights Transfers: Options for Institutional Reform," explains it this way: "Under conditions where 'new' users cannot acquire access to water supplies, how does a region grow, take advantage of economic development opportunities, and avoid conditions leading to a stagnant economy?" In southwest Georgia where there is a moratorium on water use permits in the Flint River Basin-a moratorium many are afraid may never be lifted-how do residents attract new industrial and agricultural users?

The authors of this paper are Dr. Ronald Cummings, Dr. Nancy Norton, and Dr. Virgil Norton. In their paper they explore policy solutions that might help southwest Georgia "stretch" fixed water supplies in order to accommodate new uses. They examine approaches such as increasing the efficiency of current water users and then allowing them to "sell" the saved water, and "all-or-nothing transfers" which allow water rights permits to be sold for a higher valued use. The latter would likely involve changes in the point where the water is withdrawn and/or the type of use. In other words, an agricultural water user might sell his permit to an industrial user in a different place who would use the water at a different rate and at different times.

John Sibley, President of the Georgia Conservancy, is not convinced Georgia needs to begin considering such drastic changes in the way it manages water. He says, "The people who argue for a water market say we've hit the wall, and there is no more water to allocate. Our argument is we don't know if we've hit the wall yet. People with water withdrawal permits are not using water allocated to them or are not using water efficiently. There is slack in the system. Let's take the slack out before we decide to dramatically change water policy in Georgia."

Water Market Pros and Cons

Environmentalists and others are afraid if Georgians begin buying and selling water, there will be problems. Some are concerned developers will purchase agricultural lands solely to acquire the water right for speculative purposes and/or to move the right elsewhere. This type of "water farming" could have devastating effects to communities in southwest Georgia whose economies and tax bases depend on agriculture. If farmers stop working their fields and instead sell their water permit to someone in a distant county, some rural areas could literally dry up. Another concern is that developers would buy and hold water rights without any immediate plans to use the water. If the water market is not structured in a way that forces buyers to forfeit a water right that is not put to the intended use in a specified period of time, it can have detrimental effects on local economies and create artificially high prices for water rights.

For Dr. Stephen Draper, a water policy engineer and attorney serving on the Joint Comprehensive Water Plan Study Committee, the greatest threat of establishing a water market is loss of sovereignty. He says if Georgia water becomes a commodity that is bought and sold, the state may not be able to restrict out-of-state sales, or even out-of-the-country sales. He says when state, county, and municipal governments lose control of the waters in their jurisdiction, it could affect water supply, wastewater processing, and economic development. Draper also points out the following problems that could result from removing significant quantities of surface and groundwater through a water market: 1) Changing the location or manner of use of water may cause lower flows of water that may not be sufficient to support local and downstream business and industry, 2) Less water in a stream means less water to assimilate point and nonpoint-source pollution, and 3) Transferring water in bulk will require an extensive and expensive infrastructure (pipelines, navigation channels, truck traffic) that may need to be paid for and maintained by taxpayers.

In the "Water Rights Transfers" paper, the authors say if Georgia implements a water market it must do so carefully and thoughtfully. They point out that while there have been problems in western states, water transfers and sales have provided benefits. Well-defined water rights and the ability to market them offer water users flexibility, especially in times of shortage, and expand economic growth opportunities. Cummings says a water market is not the only way to address Georgia's water issues, but it is one approach that should be considered. "I believe you cannot fix the pattern of water use in areas forever," he says. "There has to be some mechanism for these small, rural areas to respond to changes in economic conditions. So the question becomes, can you establish a set of rules to protect Georgia from the bad things that have happened in the West as a result of water markets. I think the answer to that question is yes."

Draper disagrees. He says introducing a water market in Georgia could result in costly unintended consequences. Establishing such a market without negatively affecting the environment isn't impossible, he says, but it would be highly unlikely. "You could develop the perfect law, but in the legislative process, even minor changes in the law can result in severe unintended consequences," Draper says.

He says instead of establishing a water market in Georgia, the state should encourage its citizens to use water more efficiently. Draper says, "We need to give people incentives, including tax incentives, to economize, conserve, and make more efficient use of water."

Draper talks about helping farmers increase the efficiency of their irrigation equipment, and then having them return the water they conserve back to the state. Draper says this could be achieved through long-term tax credits based on how important the farmer's water is to Georgia. Irrigation efficiency could be realized through a state cost-sharing program to upgrade irrigation systems. "The way to conserve water is with economic incentives, not by selling it in a private market," Draper says.

Jerry McCollum, president and CEO of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, is one member of the conservation community who is philosophically opposed to buying and selling water. He stands behind the belief that Georgia should manage its water as a public resource and ensure each citizen has the water he needs. He says there must be fair water allocation to water-dependent businesses and industries, but it cannot come at the expense of private citizens and ecological health. McCollum says, "There is never going to be enough water to go around. If you give water to the highest bidder, the water becomes a gold standard. Water is a matter of life and death, not a commodity like beaver pelts or gold coins.

"It's time to make some tough decisions in Georgia. We may have to take water permits back and start requiring farmers to meter their water use. If we don't inventory our water resources and develop a water management plan now, it isn't going to get any easier," says McCollum.

Sibley agrees the solution is planning, not changing Georgia's regulated riparian rights structure. He says it may be easy to set a value for water used by industry and municipalities, but what is a healthy environment worth? How do you put a price tag on that? Sibley says, "A market system can't adequately value the services provided by natural systems so the importance of the water to plants and animals will not be adequately reflected."

One key to managing water in Georgia is sorting out water law and deciding whether or not to make big changes-such as allowing a water market. Such decisions have major ramifications, some of which scientists are just beginning to understand. According to Jim Kundell, it's the unknown consequences of new water laws that Georgia policy makers need to be most wary of. "Policy is made to do certain things, but often policy does things you didn't expect. My concern is those unintended consequences," he says.

Kundell believes scientists do not have enough data to determine how transferring and selling water rights could affect hydrology, the environment, and other water users. How much of the water farmers use percolates through to the aquifer or makes it back into rivers and streams? If industry used that water instead of farmers, what would be the loss to the natural system? Farmers use water at certain times of the year at a certain rate. If industrial users use the same amount of water but at a different rate and at different times of the year, what is the effect? Georgia's lack of knowledge in certain areas makes clarifying, and possibly changing water law even more difficult.

Overcoming Water Challenges

Georgia's economic health depends on clean water. Because so much is at stake, scientists, policy makers, farmers, developers, economists, and environmentalists realize they must work together to protect water resources and decide how to allocate them among competing users. As stakeholders look at different approaches Georgia could take to overcoming its water challenges, researchers scramble to deliver the facts on which to base legal and policy decisions.

Dr. Lindsay Boring, director of the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway in southwest Georgia, says his researchers study rivers and groundwater in order to promote the conservation and the sustainable management of the natural resources of the region. He says, "We have to understand our resources scientifically in order to provide information on which policy-makers can base decisions. Without that scientific basis, decisions are only politics or economic exploitation."

One group that promises to play a vital role in resolving the state's water issues is the Joint Comprehensive Water Plan Study Committee. During the 2001 state legislative session, Governor Roy Barnes proposed and the General Assembly adopted a resolution creating the 23-member study committee and a 50-member Water Plan Advisory Committee. The study committee's primary job is to recommend a process and schedule for preparing a comprehensive water plan for Georgia. In the process the study committee will also examine Georgia's water rights structure, consider new state and sub-state water management options, and discuss the issues surrounding interbasin water transfers. The study committee has until September 2002 to complete its work and Kundell says water legislation is likely to be introduced in the 2003 legislative session. "Developing the comprehensive water plan will likely take another three or four years from there," he says.

Jerry McCollum serves on the Water Plan Advisory Committee and says the work to resolve water issues will be difficult. It will require Georgians to change the way they have always managed water and answer hard questions about water rights. He says, "We've got to take a fundamental look at water and ask who owns it, how should it be allocated, and who is responsible to manage it. In the end, I believe we will say the people own it. If not, corporate America or some fat cat speculator owns it."

Developing a comprehensive water management plan for Georgia is important if the state decides to allow a water market and even more important if it does not. In "Whose Water Is It?" Kundell explains if Georgians are not going to let the market prioritize water use, we need a water management plan to establish priorities. That plan could include criteria for deciding which water uses are more important and guide the state in issuing water permits. Some argue these criteria should be developed through a water resources planning process that includes public input and review. Others have raised questions about the need for watershed planning at the local and/or regional level. As water demands increase, the need to consider hydrologic boundaries (instead of political boundaries), watershed protection, and the coordination of groundwater and surface water management becomes increasingly important.

The Flint River Basin has taken center stage in Georgia's unfolding water drama. While the basin's stakeholders face many unique issues, how they resolve those issues promises to have lasting effects on stakeholders in Georgia's other river basins. Drought, the water wars, a growing demand for water, and a lack of understanding of water resources have forced the Flint River Basin into the spotlight. Issues and options for management range from reservoirs, to agriculture, to water permit sales and transfers, to water conservation. With so much water, i.e. money and power, at stake, the conservation community must work hard to be sure the state does not overlook the natural resources Georgia stands to lose if it does not ensure adequate in-stream flow for plants and animals.

McCollum believes there is no magic bullet-no one, quick fix for Georgia's water woes. "The solutions are complex and will require compromise and hard work from us all. At GWF we believe part of the answer is public education, fostering people's desire to care for and live more lightly on the earth," he says. "In many ways we've demonstrated that engineers' solutions are not the answer, and lawyers' solutions are not the answer. Common sense, conservation, and good stewardship are the answers."


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