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Reading the Flint’s Tea Leaves

May 14, 2012

“Not pretty” was how Environmental Protection Division (EPD) Director Jud Turner characterized stream flow conditions in south Georgia when he presented a division update to Georgia’s Board of Natural Resources on February 29, 2012.  Regardless of that assessment, EPD’s official news release announced there would be no “severe drought declaration” for the Flint River basin despite “worrisome” conditions, as reported by GPB.

Conditions in the Flint River basin, across southwest Georgia, and in portions of Georgia’s neighboring states merit “extreme” and “exceptional” drought classifications, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.  Upstream in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin (ACF), one of metro-Atlanta’s bell-weather drought indicators – Lake Lanier – is six feet below full-pool and expected to keep dropping.

The EPD director was required to make this drought declaration according to the Flint River Drought Protection Act of 2000.  Click here if you want a simplified explanation of what it means to declare drought in the Flint River Basin, or here to read about the Flint River Basin Plan.  The declaration matters for many legal and not-so-legal reasons.

First, and according to the Act, if the EPD director declares a drought in the Flint River basin, than farmers with water withdrawal permits can voluntarily accept payment and stop irrigating.  The last time EPD declared drought in this basin: 2001 and 2002.  The Act’s implementation, however, was fraught with problems.

Second: Money.  Director Turner has explained that new data was the reason for his declaration.  But in reality the state’s budget did not include money for payments, and tobacco settlement money had covered previous payments.  Furthermore, Georgia farmers face a double-whammy: lack of rainfall and high agricultural commodity prices.  With favorable peanut and cotton prices, convincing a mechanized and irrigation grower to cease production could have been a tough row to hoe and very expensive.

Third: A Curious and Costly Experiment.  One of the Act’s stated intentions was to help mitigate the tri-state water war by maintaining the Flint’s flow, which ultimately feeds the Apalachicola River in Florida.  The Act – as currently written – provides Georgia with a mechanism to maintain flows in the ACF Basin, albeit imperfect.  If the Act is re-written in 2013 as suggested by Director Turner, and the Act strips those mechanisms, what will maintain the flow during drought and appease Alabama and Florida, particularly if Lake Lanier’s releases decline and metro-Atlanta’s consumption increases?

Perhaps the answer to this question rests in the application to the Governor’s Water Supply Program for an experimental and extremely expensive ACF Basin aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) project that would inject treated water underground during high-surface flow periods and pump water to the surface during low-flow periods.  However, ASR’s “capability to provide for in-stream flow augmentation has not been directly evaluated” and must be vetted “thoroughly,” according to the Upper Flint and Lower Flint-Ochlockonee Regional Water Councils.  Let’s hope the councils – which are not currently funded – run a serious cost-benefit analysis before any dreamer taps the Governor’s Water Supply Program for an ASR scheme sold as a “streamflow augmentation” project.

Furthermore, ASR is complex and not without risks.  For example, injecting treated water underground can contaminate underground water and may not provide a consistent or energy efficient water supply storage mechanism.  Any managed underground water storage project must have solid “knowledge of the source water chemistry and mineralogy of the aquifer” before surface and ground water mixing can begin, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

One can only hope the Act is revised in such a way as to protect downstream water users, balance the Flint River basin’s agricultural production with upstream (read: metro-Atlanta’s) municipal water needs, and support critical environmental services.

-Chris Manganiello


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