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Year of the Flint

March 5, 2013

Senate Bill 213 officially opened up the Flint River Drought Protection Act (FRDPA) for revision, and the Senate Natural Resources and Environment committee moved the bill forward to the Senate Rules Committee before it heads to the full Senate for a floor vote.  SB 213 is fatally flawed in current form and must be amended or defeated.

The FRDPA has a long history and its revision has been further complicated by a connection to a tax-payer funded aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) boondoggle.  But of greater importance to all Georgians and down-streamers anywhere: SB 213 contains an assault on property rights and the well-established tradition of riparian water rights.

What’s Wrong with the FRDPA?  The FRDPA requires the Georgia Environmental Protection Division director to declare a drought in March in the lower Flint River basin and triggers a process whereby the state can pay farmers not to irrigate.   The flawed system has never worked quite right despite years of drought and was previously financed with tobacco settlement money that dried up long-ago.

The Proposed Solutions: The best parts of SB 213 include requirements for more flow studies, attempts to make agricultural irrigation more efficient, and an overarching goal to manage flows in the lower Flint River’s tributaries to benefit farmers and endangered species.  The EPD director would have the option to pay farmers not to irrigate.  But even the best revisions are endangered by a poison pill: the state’s power to dictate when and who can use the water between the banks (see lines 174-185).

ASR Boondoggle:  Right now, the lower Flint “steam augmentation” experiments that are moving forward have consequences for the state’s rivers and tax-payers.  In mid-2012, the Governor’s Water Supply Program (GWSP) extended $4.6 million in direct state investment (like a grant) to a dubious ASR demonstration experiment.  Here is how ASR works.  The project is supposed to suck water from the lower Flint’s tributaries and the Chattahoochee River during high flows and store (pump) the water in deep underground aquifers.  Then during times of low surface water flows, the state will recover the stored water (that is, pump it back to the surface) from underground and put the water back in the lower Flint’s tributaries or the Chattahoochee.

The first GWSP financed ASR well slated for construction will get sunk on the Elmodel Wildlife Management Area.  If ever completed at full scale, the ASR experimental project will cost more than $1.2 billion with no clear revenue source, require a lot of energy, and mix surface water contaminates with uncontaminated ground water supplies.  It’s also worth noting that even though the ASR application received GWSP funds, the applicants apparently demonstrated “zero” need for the project, and failed to demonstrate how the project will “provide substantial regional benefit” or “serve/benefit a significant number of Georgians” who need expanded drinking water supplies.

SB 213 Seizes Water Rights: As dictated by the bill, when an authorized stream augmentation or ASR project is recovering water, the water put back into the lower Flint will “not be available for withdrawal” by property owners who live downstream.  SB 213 is a blatant attempt to protect the state’s ill-conceived tax-payer funded investment in an un-needed ASR scheme and a state claim of ownership to a public resource.

Frankenstein: By grafting the ASR scheme and SB 213 together, Flint River farmers and property owners will sacrifice property and water rights so metro Atlanta residents can water their lawns, Georgia can avoid a legal fight over endangered species, and Georgia can claim another victory in the Tri-State water wars.  We should also be wary of granting funds to an innovative ASR demonstration project that could fail to deliver like Solyndra squandered a federal loan and failed to deliver innovative solar technology.  Georgia’s monster combination will not solve existing problems and will only create new problems.

Moving Forward: A revised SB 213 must address the entire Flint River basin and all water withdrawal permit holders.  That would include municipal, industrial and agricultural permit holders and water consumers that live and work in an area stretching from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to Bainbridge.  The Flint is a microcosm for Georgia: how we choose to balance a single basin to benefit every economic sector – from small businesses to multinational corporations, and from suburban residents to farmers – at the same time while maintaining the healthy flows that everyone needs could be a great lesson for the rest of the region.  SB 213 is not currently the right vehicle to get there.

Three other Flint River related news items:  First, Georgia River Network’s Paddle Georgia 2013 will take place on the lower Flint River where the river flows (while that’s not always the case in the upper river above the fall-line).  Paddle Georgia 2013 sold-out in 24-hours (a new record) in February.

Second:  Professional photographers and journalists David and Michael Hanson will paddle the entire Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin this spring.  The Atlanta natives are collecting stories, images, and video for a planned documentary film: Chattahoochee: Who Owns Water?

Finally, in 2009, American Rivers named the Flint the #2 Endangered River in America because of an ongoing threat that dams might rise from the river’s bedrock.  American Rivers continues to work in the basin with the Flint Riverkeeper, and you can read more about their shared goal to create a “water budget” for the entire Flint River system.

-Chris Manganiello

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Bruce Henry permalink
    August 16, 2013 11:39 am

    Wasn’t sure where to leave a comment, but this seemed as good a place as any. Historically, the Flint provided more water to Apalachicola Bay during a drought than the Chattahoochee. The tremendous growth of center point irrigation in SW Ga. has changed those dynamics. The lower Flint is directly connected to the groundwater aquifer, and during droughts provides the majority of flow. The water consumption from the ACF basin in SW Ga. is 4 times or more what metro Atlanta consumes. In fact, the flow downstream from Atlanta is considerably more than what used to occur during a drought, prior to the dam construction, due to the need to dilute the wastewater returns and keep the DO above 6 at Whitesburg. The destruction of Apalachicola Bay will never be stopped and possibly reversed unless the irrigation in SW Georgia is managed in a reasonable way. Pointing the finger at Atlanta is incorrect, and if the city were to miraculously disappear from the face of the earth, there would still be a major problem with flows to the bay.

    • Gordon Rogers permalink
      August 17, 2013 9:07 am

      In reply to Mr. Henry: what you state is true. Historically, during periods of low water, the Flint did contribute more to the Apalachicola than did the Chattahoochee, due to the tremendous inputs from the Floridan Aquifer in the Dougherty Plain. Those inputs are now diminished, tremendously, by withdrawals for irrigation, and the Floridan has not seen complete recharge in approximately 30 years. Further, as you state, the consumptive use from the Floridan in SOWEGA is much higher than in Metro NG (you state 4x, some investigators have shown as much as 5x or 6x, particularly as Metro becomes more efficient).

      However, the situation is more complex than the above. All water budgets, as financial budgets, are composed of ‘line items’. In the upper Flint, Metro returns are 25% or less to the river of what is withdrawn, not enjoying the fruits of increases in efficiency seen elsewhere in Metro, and driving low flows down to or very near zero during low-flow conditions. (See: The destruction of the Flint in the piedmont and Pine Mountain region is near complete, certainly comparable to the destruction due to flows seen in Aplalachicola, and cannot be blamed on SOWEGA ag. It is ‘all Metro’.

      Another major source of water use in the system (Flint and Chattahoochee, and Chipola and Apalachicola for that matter) is the proliferation of impoundments of all sizes (not just federal and power company reservoirs, but also municipal, farm, and amenity impoundments). The combined evaporation from these is the single largest consumer of water in the system, outstripping ag. Of course, if we are dealing in ‘line items’, and want to be fair about it, then we have to ‘assign’ evaporative losses to the right sector: farm ponds to ag, amenity lakes to where they occur, water supply reservoirs to metro, and so forth. The federal and power company reservoirs are more problematic in that they are by design multi-use. To which sector does Lanier get assigned? I have my opinion, but such is a fine discussion to have over beverages, perhaps.

      There are other factors and analytical lenses in play. To list them all would be, well, to list them all, a task I am not inclined to take on this Saturday morning. The point, however, is that comparing the magnitudes of consumptive uses is useful, analytically, but is not a “answer” to the problem, meaning that just because one is larger than another, the smaller is not important, or even trivial. Metro’s consumption is Metro’s consumptions, and by conservative estimates, Metro’s consumption could be diminishes by circa 100mgd with no economic harm, in fact creating room for more growth, and providing jobs along the way. The Flint portion of such savings is critical to the economic and ecological health of downstream communities. It must be accomplished.

      Concluding, if we are looking through a Florida-line lens at flows, then we have quite a few line items in the water budget to look it at. Surely, if we do not get more efficient, and better manage the large consumers, such as ag and Metro, we will get nowhere. And we will certainly get less of somewhere if we do not manage ALL users, in their proportion, and to the degree that they can be managed. That’s why we at Flint Riverkeeper and within the Georgia Water Coalition envision a revised Flint River Drought Protection Act that encompasses the ENTIRE Flint River, all users and permit types, stipulates achievable low-flow targets based upon good science, then engages the public to agree upon and work toward those targets. For the wider ACF, and maybe even in the upper Flint, that formula would involve intelligent, well-managed reservoir release management as well.

      Thank you for stimulating the thoughts.

      Gordon Rogers
      Flint Riverkeeper
      Albany and Fayetteville

      • Bruce Henry permalink
        August 17, 2013 9:57 am

        It is good stuff. I think our focus is a little different. with mine being the bay and yours being the Flint. My main point is all this focus on metro Atlanta by Florida as it effects Apalach is short sighted and probably done for political reasons rather than scientific. I saw flow modeling which looked at historic flows during a drought that showed 200 cfs at P’tree Creek whereas now the minimum is about 750 cfs due to Lanier. Man’s use of water during normal flow periods does not have near the deleterious effect on the environment that it has during low flow periods.

        I know this isn’t entirely true, but water is most critical during a drought and the effects on the aquatic environment are most pronounced during a drought. If you’ll notice, the main focus of the negotiations between the states has been on minimum flows. Aquatic creatures don’t survive sun burn. The oysters are taking a beating because the amount of water delivered to the bay has significantly decreased during low flow periods and irrigation in the Dougherty Plain is largely to blame. I recall seeing a sharply rising hydrograph on Spring Creek during a drought and no rain in the basin as irrigation ceased at the end of the growing season.

        Evaporation from farm ponds is intriguing but may prove difficult to quantify and I’m betting most of that water in those ponds was removed during non low flow periods. Granted, other flow periods are important such as the large, historical spring flows, but I believe that the low flows do the most damage to the biota, particularly to my friend the oyster which is actually the surrogate organism used to represent the health of the bay.

        I enjoy the discussion, and have a long interest in preserving the health of the ACF basin. I still thank Jimmy for stopping that dam at Spruill Bluff.


  1. Georgia Water Wire
  2. SB 213 Post-Session Assessment | Georgia Water Wire
  3. SB 213’s Passage | Georgia Water Wire

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