Conflict over water between states likely to continue
Water has been a subject of contention for Georgia farmers for decades. Although the resolution of the lawsuit filed in the U.S. Supreme Court by Florida in 2013 is perhaps months away, the fight to protect access to water is likely to continue after the decision is handed down, according to Jud Turner, one of the attorneys who has worked on Georgia's side of the case.
Turner, the former Georgia Environmental Protection Division director, gave an update on the progress of the case during remarks at the Joint Agriculture Chairmen's Ag Issues Summit, held Aug. 23 at the Georgia Museum of Agriculture in Tifton. Special Master Ralph Lancaster made his recommendation in March and the Supreme Court will hear arguments this fall and is expected to issue a ruling in the first half of 2018.
"We've had wins and losses," Turner said "The water wars will continue unless there's a big settlement between governors or something on some other front. It would be short-sighted to view any of these legal decisions as the end of it. In agriculture, we ought to be active, continuing to manage, continuing to seek ways to improve."
The annual Ag Issues Summit, hosted by Georgia House Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom McCall and Georgia Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman John Wilkinson, drew approximately 200 agricultural stakeholders from around the state. They also heard presentations on the Georgia Agricultural Tax Exemption (GATE), rural development and rural healthcare, updates on ag water use, and the Destination Ag program at the museum. Georgia Farm Bureau was one of the event sponsors.
GATE Compliance Officer Reggie Stowers reviewed the training that he and his fellow compliance officers provide to retailers, as well as the results of a survey to measure the amount of GATE card abuse. Stowers and four other compliance officers have visited approximately 1,500 stores that sell equipment and supplies to farmers, offering guidance on which items are exempt from sales taxes under GATE and which items are not. Stowers said 63 percent of the retailers surveyed said they had fewer than 50 GATE customers per day and 91 percent of them reported fewer than 25 GATE transactions per day. Eighty-five percent of the retailers surveyed said they had little or no abuse, and less than two percent reported significant abuse.
Mark Masters of the Georgia Water Planning and Policy Center presented data on Georgia's agricultural water use, noting that since the state employed its water metering program, the ability to quantify water use has improved significantly. Of the 23,000 irrigation pivots in the state, 80 percent have meters to measure how much water they're using. While Masters said that all of the pivots need to be metered, the ones that are have provided a significant collection of data. Masters said withdrawals of surface water have declined in 10 of the state's 11 regional watersheds, while withdrawals of ground water have increased in some areas.
Georgia Rep. Sam Watson, who is vice chair of the House Rural Development Council, reviewed the council's efforts to determine how the state can help rural communities improve their economies and quality of life. These included meetings with broadband providers and economic developers, as well as studies into improving workforce development and meeting infrastructure needs. Watson said rural areas urgently need these issues addressed.
Sen. Dean Burke, a physician from Seminole County, discussed challenges facing rural healthcare, which is severely limited in many areas of the state.
The Ag Issues Summit included a presentation from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College - which operates the Georgia Museum of Agriculture - about the Destination Ag program, which offers field trips to ABAC for elementary schools in four South Georgia counties.
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and Lt. Governor Casey Cagle discussed the need for the state's rural communities to prosper, and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp reviewed his office's efforts to streamline occupational registration and voter registration.