Reduction in water use could be devastating to Georgia's largest industry

Center pivot irrigation systems like this one are ubiquitous in southwest Georgia and help contribute to the state’s farm economy.

ALBANY – As the decadeslong water wars between Alabama, Florida and Georgia drags on, southwest Georgia farmers are part of the dispute.

A special master in New Mexico has been tasked with resolving the dispute involving the Apalachicola-Flint-Chattahoochee river system that stretches from North Georgia to Apalachicola Bay in Florida.

Part of Florida’s claim in the case is that withdrawals of water for irrigation by southwest Georgia farmers is damaging the system.

Georgia has capped withdrawal permits for the region, Calhoun County farmer Jimmy Webb said. Any ruling that reduces the amount farmers can use could have a devastating impact.

Webb, who grows row crops using irrigation, pointed out that while Georgia farmers are limited, a farmer in far north Florida is allowed to pump water from the same system.

Ultimately, if the amount of water available to farmers is reduced, it will have a huge impact on the region’s economy, he said.

“A farmer sells his crop and he goes to the auto dealership, or he goes to buy clothes or he goes to the jewelry store,” Webb said.

Agriculture and forestry as a whole is the state’s largest economic driver. Sales of farm products in 2017 totaled $13.79 billion. That does not include other payments made to farmers.

The state has funded research on farm water use. Much of that research is conducted at the C.M. Stripling Irrigation Park in Camilla.

“We host and coordinate research projects related to helping farmers be more efficient when they irrigate,” said Calvin Perry, superintendent at the research park, which is part of the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Those projects look at various types of irrigation and sprinkler systems, among other things. Phone and computer apps are among other innovations that have been developed for farmers.

“We compare new (crop) varieties looking at how they work when there is drought,” Perry said. “I would say the actual application of water has really evolved as far as the technology used.”

Phone apps and other technology also can allow a farmer to gauge rainfall and adjust irrigation needs without having to drive to fields that in many cases are far flung.

“We have been some of the leaders, certainly in the Southeast, in developing tools to help our center pivots (irrigation systems) apply water in varying rates across the field as needed,” Perry said.

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