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Environmental leaders study Flint River

IGEL students from around the state listen to Flint RiverKeeper Gordon Rogers, center, talk about water issues in Southwest Georgia. The students represent leaders in business, agriculture and government who come to learn about water and other environmental issues in Georgia. Albany is the second of five planned sessions in separate sections of the state.

IGEL students from around the state listen to Flint RiverKeeper Gordon Rogers, center, talk about water issues in Southwest Georgia. The students represent leaders in business, agriculture and government who come to learn about water and other environmental issues in Georgia. Albany is the second of five planned sessions in separate sections of the state.

ALBANY, Ga. -- A diverse team of around 40 people, representing leaders in Georgia government, business, industry and non-profit came together at the Hilton Garden Inn this week. Their purpose was to learn about Southwest Georgia water -- as related to the Flint River -- and to talk with farmers and other stakeholders in the environmental picture.

The students were from the Institute for Georgia Environmental Leadership, or IGEL, and Albany was their second stop in a five-part program to allow participants to be actively exposed to the vast potential and pressing environmental concerns in all regions of Georgia. The initial session took place in Atlanta, where "Igelians" received an organizational overview including guides to leadership values and assessments, land use economics and decision making. Before the 12th annual IGEL program ends, this year's crop of leaders will visit Sapelo Island on the Georgia coast, Dawson County in the southern Appalachians, and then return to Atlanta.

"The reason we focus on water here is because this is such a unique area in terms of its water resources and water challenges," said Rob Williams, one of the facilitators for the IGEL group. "The aquifer that runs underneath this southwest plain makes ground water available in volumes and with relative ease that no other part of the state has. That's led to the development and management of an incredible agricultural industry."

According to Williams, while other parts of the "ACF" river system include the Appalachicola, Chattahoochie and Flint rivers, it's the Flint that exchanges with the southwest aquifer and holds the greatest importance for area farms and businesses.

"It's important for the leaders to understand those issues," Williams said.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the group visited the University of Georgia's Stripling Irrigation Research Park near Camilla and the Jones Ecological Research Center in Newton, Williams said, and spent time talking with farmers in Mitchell County.

"The idea is to understand water from the perspective of someone who lives and works in Southwest Georgia," Williams said.

On Friday, Igelians were back at the Hilton for a panel discussion on statewide water issues, featuring Apalachicola RiverKeeper Dan Tonsmeire, Flint RiverKeeper Gordon Rogers and Lewis Jones, the attorney representing most of the water providers in the Atlanta metro area, including the Atlanta Regional Commission, the City of Atlanta and Dekalb County.

"On the panel, we discussed issues with those three rivers, how they've changed over the past 25 years or so, and how Southwest Georgia fits into all that. The reason for all of this is so the IGEL leaders will know what they're talking about when they bring this information to other people."

According to Rogers, many other parts of the U.S. -- particularly California -- are running out of water, and so the nation will looking more and more to Georgia for agricultural products.

"As those areas wane in their importance, this area is going to grow in its importance," Rogers said. "We have to be cognizant about what's happening long after you and I are dead."

Kathie Gannon, an Igelian and Dekalb County commissioner, said the Atlanta metro area is not the enemy some people think it is when it comes to control of the Flint River and general water rights.

"There is that perception that the problem is in Atlanta," Gannon said, "but as we've been talking to the stakeholders here, we see that everybody has a piece of the pie, a piece of the problem and a piece of the solution. When we came down and talked to the farmers, we saw they understood about water use for irrigation. It was really educational to learn all the things they're doing to conserve. In Atlanta and Dekalb County, we're really big on conservation, too."

Gannon sees the solution as "a lot of management issues which have to be worked out."

Hailing from nearby Colquitt, Birdsong peanut employee Sally Wells is in the minority of Southwest Georgia Igelians. She describes her water education as an "eye-opening experience."

"It's been amazing," Wells said. "I thought I knew everything important about agriculture in this part of the state. We've got to change awareness of how what we're doing impacts the environment and other human beings. Politics and economics is always going to be a major factor in any management plans we might ask people to adhere to, but I think we're taking the right approach. People are forming stakeholder groups and systematically trying to walk through issues and come to a consensus at every level. That's not an easy task. At the end of the day, we're human beings with our own personal interests."