State EPD could ease ban on tapping Flint River basin water for first time in a decade
Proposal would help Georgia’s blueberry, citrus growers
State regulators may allow new water withdrawals from the lower Flint River Basin for the first time since the summer of 2012, when a moratorium was declared on all new and expanded permits. The new permits would be limited to frost protection. Joe Cook/Georgia River Network
State regulators are considering the first significant easing of a decade-old moratorium on new or expanded withdrawals in portions of southwest Georgia’s Flint River Basin.
The state Environmental Protection Division has proposed letting farmers tap into the Floridan Aquifer for the limited purpose of using irrigation to protect crops like the state’s prized blueberries from bouts of frost.
The narrow exception to the moratorium is being mulled two years after the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Georgia in the long-running battle with Florida over water access and usage.
Metro Atlanta – where the Flint River begins just south of the city – and southwest Georgia farmers were at the center of Florida’s failed lawsuit, which accused Georgia of allowing agricultural water usage to go largely unchecked to the detriment of Apalachicola Bay’s oyster fisheries.
“With the end of the Supreme Court litigation, we have been looking for ways to responsibly balance additional demands for water use with the need to maintain minimum flows in the streams and rivers in the area,” EPD Director Richard Dunn recently told the Board of Natural Resources.
Dunn told agricultural producers assembled in Perry last fall that the harm from diminished stream flows on water users and critical aquatic habitat in the lower Flint River Basin during droughts did not go away with the resolution of the lawsuit.
But Dunn described the state’s moratorium-based approach as “a very blunt instrument” for dealing with it.
Frost protection permits are already issued elsewhere in Georgia. This proposal would open up the permit to farmers in southwest Georgia, where agricultural leaders argue the ban on new permits has limited the industry’s potential.
A public meeting is planned for Wednesday in Albany for EPD to solicit feedback on the frost protection permit plan. That gathering is set for 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Candy Room of the Riverfront Resource Center. Written comments can also be sent to [email protected].
“This will be the first major modification of the moratorium, and we’re looking forward to the feedback we will be receiving,” Dunn told the board last month.
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, which is a project that is giving state officials space to reevaluate the size and scope of the moratorium 11 years after it was first declared.
As part of this project, the state is also considering the development of a habitat conservation plan, which Dunn described as a tool to allow farmers to “more reliably meet irrigation needs” while also protecting various threatened and endangered aquatic species.
Just Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that an extremely rare freshwater mussel that was once found in the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River (ACF) Basin is “on the brink of extinction.”
The federal agency is proposing to list the southern elktoe as endangered after it has largely vanished. Dams, poor water quality and reduced water quantity tied to agricultural and growing city centers have all contributed to the mussel’s decline, the agency said.
About 578 river miles have been flagged for potential designation as critical habitat for the southern elktoe, including part of the lower Flint River area.
Another federally funded project was also announced last spring that is focused on restoring and maintaining water flow at Albany’s Radium Springs, which feeds the Flint River, and boosting the recreational amenities in the surrounding park. The $12.5 million project is part of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in late 2021.
Warming winters, vulnerable berries
Spraying blueberries with water to protect them from frost may sound counterintuitive, but it’s a common method of protecting Georgia’s most lucrative fruit product.
For one, groundwater tends to be warmer than surface water, so that helps keep temperatures up. But as the water is being sprayed, it’s also evaporating and creating heat. And the water also forms a coating of ice on the blueberries that protects the berries from dropping below freezing.
“So, it’s an insulation kind of thing,” explains Pam Knox, director of the UGA Weather Network and agricultural climatologist. “And that works best if you have sufficient water to put in a good clear coat of ice on the berries.”
This also means that once the spraying starts, it needs to continue until the temperatures rise above freezing again.
“You can go through a lot of water in one night but usually you only have a night or two of frost that would require irrigation a year and it’s always in the spring, so it’s not during the peak of the growing season for other crops like corn or pecans or anything,” Knox said.
This is why Dunn argues the frost protection permits would have “a very minimal to no effect on surface water flows in the area.”
The permit would not be limited to specific crops, but blueberry and citrus growers are seen as the most likely to benefit. Citrus is still a relatively new-to-Georgia crop – lawmakers created a Georgia Citrus Commission just this year – but Florida growers often turn to irrigation when the temperature plummets.
And warming winters could leave blueberry growers increasingly vulnerable to spring chills, which may mean greater demand for frost protection by irrigation in the future, Knox said.
“Frost is a funny thing, because frost is more of a weather event than a climate event,” Knox said. “It’s definitely getting earlier, but there’s still a huge amount of variability. In my time here in the last 20 years, we’ve had frosts that have been well into April before.
“But the thing that’s making us more vulnerable is the fact that the winters are getting warmer and that makes the bushes ready earlier than they would be otherwise,” she said.
‘A big first step’
State regulators are still gathering feedback on the proposal to gauge the level of interest and set more specific policy details, such as whether there will be a cap on the number of permits issued.
But at least two agricultural groups in Georgia – the Farm Bureau and the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association – have so far greeted the proposal with optimism.
Alex Bradford, director of the Georgia Farm Bureau’s public policy department, called the permits “another step in the right direction” that balances the region’s economic needs with responsible resource management.
“This will allow farmers to protect their vulnerable fruit crops at critical times when a late freeze can decimate their year’s production. This can be a vital tool for them while having a minimal effect on the basin,” Bradford said.
But ag interests aren’t the only ones feeling encouraged by what the permits represent.
Gordon Rogers, executive director of the Flint Riverkeeper, which is an environmental advocacy group, praised the plan as a logical next step – and hopefully, he says, the first of many.
Thinking back, Rogers recalled his surprise 11 years ago when someone congratulated him after then EPD Director Judson Turner announced the moratorium on new withdrawal permits.
“I said A, I didn’t do it. B, I didn’t advocate for it. And C, a moratorium is an admission of failure of management. It’s not a victory,” Rogers said. “It meant that the resource was over allocated and that we had done a bunch of damage to the resource.”
Rogers said he sees the frost protection exception as a sign that Georgia is shifting toward a new era of more balanced government control and technology – rather than a “nuclear” option like a moratorium – for managing the region’s water resources. Some parts of the region were under a moratorium even before the big 2012 one.
“We’re creeping and soon we’ll be toddling and then walking and running toward a time when there can be many exceptions that are very targeted, well-crafted to these moratoria,” he said. “I think that this is an important step economically for really what’s going to amount to a handful of growers. But it’s also a really important step politically and psychologically.”
Chris Butts, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, shares a similar outlook. He hopes the data available on water usage and the collaboration among stakeholders will chart a course out of the current moratorium in the wake of the water wars case that landed before the nation’s highest court.
“I think we’ve come out the other side of that hopefully with a greater data set that will allow us to have a better understanding of how to maintain or achieve a balance. How do we protect the watershed and ensure that we’ve got water for human consumption and fire safety and all those things – how do we balance that with what is one of the most bountiful agricultural production areas in the world?” Butts said.
Butts said there are about 1,000 acres of blueberries already in the area. And while the new permit would be a benefit for anyone who currently lacks access to frost protection through irrigation, Butts has his doubts about whether the new permit will encourage anyone to plant a new blueberry crop.
“I don’t think it’s going to lead to a huge influx of new applicants because it’s not enough to entice a grower to start a new operation just because they have frost protection and no irrigation,” Butts said. Still, he said he sees EPD’s proposal as “a big first step in possibly moving away from the moratorium at some point.”
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