Georgia Irrigation in Review

18 09 2008

By Harrison, Kerry

Irrigation has allowed Georgia farmers to get the most out of their land for the past three decades, and Georgia engineers have had a major impact on keeping farmers informed. In the 1970s …

Irrigation usage exploded due to high corn, soybean, and wheat prices. Areas of southwest Georgia, too sandy for dryland farming, were cleared and put into row crops and vegetable production using center pivots. In the Coastal Plain region, farmers chose travelers or center pivots. No government intervention, incentives, subsidies, or construction was used to fuel Georgia’s irrigation growth. Farmers made these business decisions, like most in Georgia, with minimal state or county interference.

At the time, it seemed Georgia’s water supply was inexhaustible. The Floridian aquifer would never run short. This mostly untapped reservoir was one of the largest in the United States, and it was recharged annually. No permits were required for either wells or ponds. No reporting was required for irrigation or other water use. No permitting was required for wells used by municipalities and industries until 1972.

Regulatory environment changes in the 1980s

When the Georgia groundwater permitting legislation passed in the early 1970s, agricultural withdrawals-like individual homeowners- were exempted. Less than 81,000 hectares (200,000 acres) were irrigated at the time. The systems were considered “too spread out” and too few to be of concern. By the early 1980s, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and its Environmental Protection Division (EPD), which control permits and reporting, surmised that irrigation had grown to more than 405,000 hectares (1,000,000 acres) and was quickly becoming a major user of water. They started pushing for tighter controls.

In 1988, withdrawals capable of pumping more than 379,000 L/day (100,000 gal/day) for agricultural purposes were brought into the permit system. If an irrigation system required a 4,500 L/min (1,200 gpm) pumping rate and that capacity pump was installed-that is what was permitted. Although the regulators made varying assumptions about actual irrigation application per permitted acre, farmers could technically use that pump 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Only economics held them in check. No reporting was required after the permit was issued. No conservation plan and no drought emergency provisions were needed. No fees were required. The regulatory agency was too understaffed at that time to police the rules. By the end of the grandfather period in 1991, sight unseen, 12,000 permits were issued for over 405,000 hectares (1,000,000 acres) of irrigation plus other uses.

Farmers learn best from neighbors

When a farmer saw a neighbor putting up a pivot and succeeding, he wanted one, too. Skills improved. Farmers who installed systems in the 1970s learned one could not take equipment and scheduling straight from the West and make it work in the Southeast. Most Georgia soils held too little water. Water supplies and irrigation had to be large and applications frequent enough to completely replace crop use every three to four days, and do that continuously for 20 to 30 days between drought-spaced rainfalls. Over time, farmers learned this as well and put in suitable systems or adapted their rotations and crop management. The energy crunch prompted farmers to convert to low-pressure systems.

In a panic: water war

The end of the 1990s ushered in a new dimension to irrigation in Georgia: fear!

Read on here.

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