The Georgia Water Planning and Policy Center (GWPPC) at Albany State University (ASU) and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources are using a $49.8 million grant they received under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) to help farmers access deep groundwater to irrigate their crops. The project will also utilize $3.7 million in local investments.
In addition to installing about 240 deep aquifer wells in Southwest Georgia, this project will support conservation planning at participating farms, environmental monitoring of groundwater aquifers and aquatic ecosystems, and stakeholder-driven management planning of water resources and endangered species.
This project will benefit a region that includes 27 counties with a population of approximately 590,000 people, according to the GWPPC. Farming accounts for 24% of the regional economy and more than 70% of the water used in the region.
Gov. Brian Kemp, members of the Water & Sewer Infrastructure Committee and state leaders awarded the preliminary grant in February. Kemp appointed the Water & Sewer Infrastructure Committee in 2021 to take applications and make recommendations to him regarding federal coronavirus relief funds allocated to Georgia through the ARP.
The Golden Triangle Resource Conservation and Development Council will play an important role in project implementation.
“We are elated our partnership with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has received approval to move forward with a project that will enhance the lives of our community and students for generations,” said ASU President Marion Ross Fedrick. “I am proud that ASU has the opportunity to participate in this endeavor through the Georgia Water Planning & Policy Center.”
The grant will fund the conversion of surface water irrigation in Southwest Georgia to deep groundwater sources in times of drought. Reducing surface water use, particularly in times of drought, will improve water supply security and protect the rivers and streams in the Lower Flint River Basin. The project will make the region more resilient to drought and sustain its economy, natural systems and communities.
“Agricultural irrigation is the lifeblood of the economy of Southwest Georgia. This project is a giant step forward in water management that will have economic and environmental impacts that benefit this region for generations,” said GWPPC Director Mark Masters.
Over the last 20 years, multiple severe droughts have created uncertainty over water supplies and threatened the viability of the agricultural economy and natural systems in the Lower Flint River Basin, according to the GWPPC. This project is intended to restore and protect these waters to benefit farmers and natural systems in the region, while providing farmers with more reliable water supplies.
Water resource planning and assessment in the region indicates that deeper aquifers can support more use, but this project will not assume deeper aquifers are unlimited resources, according to the GWPPC. The project will assess the sustainability of increased use of these aquifers through monitoring and modeling.
“This project will enhance the region’s capacity to respond to drought and provide the state with important information about our deeper aquifers that will support sustainable water management decisions,” said Anna Truszczynski, Watershed Protection Branch chief with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
According to GWPPC data, highly efficient irrigation systems are found on more than 93% of the irrigated acreage in the Lower Flint region, and farmers employ a host of other water conservation practices. However, greater investments are needed to prepare for severe droughts and protect the region’s unique aquatic ecosystems.
“This project will completely change how many farmers I know use water. We want to protect and sustain this region – its water, its people – and we’ll be able to do that much better now,” said Jimmy Webb, a Calhoun County farmer.
State water planning councils in Southwest Georgia had previously recommended converting irrigation withdrawals to deep aquifers.
“This project will greatly enhance our ability to provide water for all needs in our region. We are pleased to see the Council’s recommendation become a reality,” said Lower Flint-Ochlockonee Regional Water Council Chairman Richard Royal.