Florida lawsuit threatens irrigation practices in Southwest Georgia

The Flint River is important to farmers in Southwest Georgia who count on irrigation to produce high-yielding crops. (File Photo)

The Flint River is important to farmers in Southwest Georgia who count on irrigation to produce high-yielding crops. (File Photo)

ALBANY — The so-called Water Wars between Florida, Georgia and Alabama have been going on for more than two decades. Luckily for Southwest Georgia, much of the debate has involved the Chattahoochee River or Lake Lanier and the metro Atlanta area.

No so much anymore. A lawsuit filed by the state of Florida Tuesday points a finger at this area and the volume of irrigation used by its farmers.

“We’re no longer on the sidelines,” said Doug Wilson of the Georgia Water and Planning Policy Center in Albany.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is accusing Georgia of using more than its share of the water that flows between the two states. He blames the Gulf Coast’s dismal oyster business on the lack of water coming from Georgia.

In a Reuters story earlier this week, Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, called the lawsuit frivolous.

“Florida is receiving historically high water flows at the state line this year, but it needs a boogeyman to blame for its poor management of Apalachicola Bay,” Robinson said.

The oyster business is a huge cog in the Florida Panhandle economy.

Florida is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce the amount of water Georgia uses as it flows through the state.

Wilson said Georgia has about 700,000 acres permitted for irrigation. Virtually all of that is located south of Dooly County, he said.

“One question is how many of those acres are actually being irrigated,” Wilson said. He predicted the total is “somewhere north of 500,000 acres. Florida will point to the permitted total … how much we theoretically could irrigate.”

All of that irrigating does result in fairly low flow in some of Southwest Georgia’s streams occasionally, depending on recent rainfall.

Wilson noted that Georgia has about 120,000 acres permitted for irrigation in the Itchauway-Nochaway area. Spring Creek in the Early- Miller County area has about 130,000 acres. The Lower Flint has another 200,000 permitted acres, Wilson said.

The irrigation is used mostly on peanuts, cotton and corn, Wilson said. “It’s roughly 40 percent on cotton, 40 percent on peanuts and 20 percent on corn,” he said.

Corn, which is harvested earlier than peanuts and cotton, requires more water than the other two crops. It’s estimated that corn requires about 19 inches of irrigated water to produce top yields in a normal growing season.

Despite the considerable need for irrigation, Wilson said Georgia farmers are the best at efficiently using their water resources.

Large scale irrigation did not begin in the area until the 1970s, Wilson said. While other areas were using processes that were not conservation friendly, Georgia farmers “cut their teeth on irrigation with center pivot … high-pressure and high-impact.”

“Since then Georgia has evolved into taking advantage of new technology, and a large percentage of them use the drip nozzle, which is 15 to 20 percent more efficient,” he said.

“The vast majority of systems are 80 to 85 percent efficient, and you can’t get a heck of a lot better than that.”

Wilson said the University of Georgia has been a leader in developing ways to use the irrigation systems more efficiently.

“We have mobile labs for irrigation and do efficiency checks all the time,” he said.

Another advantage is that most systems that were bought in the ’70s have been replaced.

“You don’t replace center pivot systems with old technology,” Wilson said. “You replace it with what is out there today, which is the low-pressure, drop-nozzle systems that are at the cutting edge of row crop irrigation.

“Georgia doesn’t have to back up to anybody when it comes to conservation efforts.”