ATHENS — A report published last week by the Athens-based Georgia Water Coalition details the enormous withdrawals from the Floridian aquifer by the agriculture industry, an industry second only to the energy sector in the amount of water it withdraws.
The coalition’s proclaimed mission is to protect the state’s surface water and groundwater resources. Its report is entitled “Watering Georgia: The State of Agriculture and Water in Georgia.”
“At least 2.8 million people live in coastal and south Georgia, and most get their drinking water from the Floridan Aquifer, a massive, underground, porous sponge lying beneath 100,000 square miles of land stretching from South Carolina to Mississippi and south into Florida,” the GWC report stated. “Savannah, Brunswick, Waycross, Valdosta, Cairo, and a host of other communities draw some or all of their drinking water from the Floridan. It supplies a paper plant in Jesup, a nuclear power plant in Baxley and small manufacturing facilities across dozens of counties. Across the Dougherty and Coastal Plains from Augusta to Bainbridge, the aquifer irrigates hundreds of thousands of acres of crops every year.”
According to the Georgia Water Coalition report, the energy and agricultural sectors utilize more water than any other economic interest in the United States.
“Agricultural water withdrawals are surpassed only by withdrawals for generation of energy. And in Georgia, agricultural water demands — like all other water demands — are expected to increase as production shifts to the Southeast from other parts of the country,” the GWC report said. “Between 2007 and 2013, total irrigated area declined in the American West, while it increased east of the Mississippi River. In Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina, irrigated acreage increased by more than 50 percent.”
According to officials with GWC, many environmentalists and conservationists have a sense of industrial and municipal water demands, including energy generation, but many lack the understanding of the agricultural sector’s “water footprint.”
“Georgians must have a full understanding of the state’s complete water budget in order to appreciate the challenges their communities, state and region face while seeking healthy flows to meet growing and competing demands multiple sectors place on freshwater,” the GWC report said. “According to the most recent U.S. Geological Survey data from 2010, water withdrawals for thermoelectric power generation in the U.S. utilized an estimated 161 billion gallons per day. And the total estimated for agriculture in the U.S. amounted to 115 (billion gallons per day).
“In percentages, power generation accounted for 45 percent of all water withdrawals, and irrigated agriculture accounted for 33 percent. For comparison’s sake, public drinking water supplies were responsible for 12 percent (42 billion gallons a day) of water withdrawals in the U.S.”
The report also documents a positive trend in the agricultural sector by noting the trend of utilizing more efficient irrigation systems.
“Between 2010 and 2015 in the lower Flint River Basin, the number of inefficient irrigation systems declined by 37 percent, and the use of more efficient systems increased by 30 percent,” the report said. “Dedicated farmers, growers and producers can be good stewards.”
Policy recommendations in the coalition report included the need to collect more reliable and relevant data on water withdrawals and use.
“We should learn from the experience of water management in the Flint River Basin,” Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers said, “and not repeat the same mistakes in other basins, particularly in areas that are only now experiencing explosive growth in the installation if irrigation equipment.”