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Southwest Georgia Farmers Frustrated by Trickle of Progress to Ease Flint River Withdrawal Ban

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by Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder
June 23, 2023

ALBANY – A state proposal to slightly ease a ban on new and expanded withdrawals from portions of the Flint River Basin was met this week with frustration from farmers who are weary of the decade-old moratorium they argue is limiting the industry’s potential in southwest Georgia.

The state Environmental Protection Division is soliciting feedback on its proposal to allow more withdrawals from the Floridan Aquifer for the limited purpose of protecting crops like blueberries and citrus from menacing spring freezes. 

As part of that, Georgia regulators met with farmers, including a handful who are also state lawmakers, in downtown Albany Wednesday as a rain-swollen Flint River flowed nearby.

Using irrigation for frost protection requires large amounts of water. But allowing this narrow exception to the moratorium is broadly seen as a cautious first step in rethinking today’s blanket ban because producers tend to only battle frost a few days a year and at a time before irrigation demands for other crops rev up.

The Flint River flows through downtown Albany. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

These talks are happening two years after the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Georgia in the long-running battle with Florida over water access and usage that centered partly on agricultural irrigation practices in the southwest corner of Georgia. 

The state agency that initiated the moratorium in 2012 is now exploring alternatives that factor in the harm to all water users and aquatic habitat caused by diminished stream flows in times of drought.

“We think that this an option that will allow us to be protective of the water resource, have a limited effect on flows in the Flint, on the Floridan Aquifer but at the same time, open up this portion of the state for citrus and berry production,” Anna Truszczynski, chief of EPD’s Watershed Protection Branch, told the group gathered Wednesday.

Truszczynski called the proposal a “conservative approach” that will create a sense of regulatory certainty for farmers. The agency plans to begin accepting applications this September.

Growers, though, have welcomed the proposal but argue the proposed permit rules, which are still a work in progress, are too restrictive to boost production. And they say there is a built-in incentive for farmers to be just as conservative with water as they are with fertilizer and pesticides.

“Like everybody said, nobody wants to even cut the pump on,” Tom McCall, a former lawmaker who is now the president of the Georgia Farm Bureau, said afterwards.

As of now, the permit could only be used for frost protection and not regular irrigation. And the permit would also require the added cost of telemetry equipment to monitor air temperature and the timing and volume of water withdrawn.

But the proposal is also running into long-simmering frustration over the ban on new and expanded withdrawals. Some parts of southwest Georgia were under a moratorium even before the 2012 ban.

“You referred to this as step one,” Dominic LaRiccia, a former state lawmaker who is now director of field services for Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper, said to Truszczynski. “I think what a lot of these people want to know and what a lot of them are asking us is – we’re not as concerned about step one as we are with two and three. 

“And how do we turn yellow to green or turn green to nothing,” LaRiccia said, referring to the color-coded zones. Only the green zone, where pumping has less impact on the basin’s water flow, would be eligible for the new frost protection permit.

Sen. Sam Watson. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

State Sen. Sam Watson, a Moultrie Republican and vegetable farmer who attended the meeting, said the pace of change is adding to the frustrations back on the farm. 

“Folks are just ready to see some movement and some more steps because it costs so much to do what we do today,” Watson said afterwards. “And we need to be able to irrigate our crops and we need to be able to diversify, and we’ve obviously got to have water to do that. It’s just hard to explain why we haven’t made more of those steps.” 

The potential new withdrawals are being considered as Albany State University uses a $50 million federal grant through the American Rescue Plan to convert surface water irrigation to deep groundwater wells.

As part of this project, the state is also considering the development of a habitat conservation plan, which might allow more withdrawals while protecting various threatened and endangered aquatic species – like a rare freshwater mussel that the federal government says is nearing extinction.

Truszczynski said Wednesday the development of such a plan is still about a year away.

Ryan Thompson, who is president of the state well drillers’ association and a farmer, is among those eager to move beyond the moratorium.

“We’ve got an abundant supply of water. Yes, it can get low – we saw that back in 2011, 2012 – but guess what? Boom, it’s right back,” Thompson said at Wednesday’s meeting. 

“We are the breadbasket. We’ve got to figure out how to make agriculture, the river, the mussels, the fish, the snakes – everybody’s got to coexist. We can do it together,” he said. “We can’t be scared of EPD, and EPD doesn’t need to be scared of us.” 

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Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.