U.S. Water News Online
CAMILLA, Ga. -- Southwest Georgia is one of the most
productive agricultural regions in Dixie, but you wouldn't know it
from the soil under the corn, peanuts and cotton. It can be sandy, it
can be pebbly, and it doesn't hold water very well.
That begins to explain why irrigation is so vital around here --
and why the mere suggestion that some of the region's water might be
taken away fills folks with fear and resentment.
With a historic drought gripping the Southeast, Georgia farmers
are increasingly worried that their needs will be sacrificed to those
of Atlanta -- a city of runaway growth and seemingly unquenchable
thirst -- or water-guzzling Florida.
"Atlanta needs to take a hard look at what's happening in the
metro area," said Bubba Johnson, a 68-year-old farmer who grows
cotton and corn on a 500-acre plot. "There's going to be a heck of a
battle if they try to come down here to get the water."
The drought has forced much of the state to enact unprecedented
watering restrictions, and legislative leaders want to build more
state reservoirs. Some -- including Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin --
have also floated the idea of transferring water to Atlanta from
other places via pipeline.
Franklin has not specifically mentioned pumping water out of
southwest Georgia's Flint River or its tributaries, but the mere
possibility has stoked the long-standing tension between the big city
and the countryside.
"I don't want to throw a brick at Atlanta. But I feel like we're
getting squeezed between entities as everyone competes for water,"
said Glenn Cox, a farmer in Camilla. "We just don't have enough
clout. There are more trees in this plot of land than there are
people in this county."
The drought also has forced a well-known Atlanta nursery to file
for bankruptcy in what is perhaps the first major corporate casualty
of the drought.
The dry conditions and a ban on outdoor watering kept customers
away from Pike Nursery Holding, which calls itself the nation's
largest independently owned garden center, said vice president Wayne
"It caught us a little bit off guard. Homeowners started turning
on homeowners," Juers said. "And if you're planting pansies out
there, they think you're a criminal."
In a recent editorial, Valdosta Daily Times lashed out at Atlanta,
accusing it of hogging water while farmers watch their crops burn in
Atlanta politicians, the newspaper said, "can't bring themselves
to tell their greedy constituents complaining about the low flows in
their toilets that perhaps if they didn't have six bathrooms, it
might ease the situation a bit. That watering your lawn isn't as
important as watering crops. Or that their greedy overbuilding has
taxed their supplies of natural resources beyond their capabilities."
Between 1990 and 2000, Atlanta added more than 1 million people
and its water use climbed 30 percent to about 420 million gallons a
day. Now metropolitan Atlanta boasts roughly 5 million people and
projects more than 2 million more by 2030, when water could climb
past 700 million gallons a day.
In rural southwest Georgia, the biggest city, Albany, has about
160,000 people in the metro area. The region helps make Georgia the
No. 1 peanut state.
Farmers have tilled the fields here for generations, but water use
spiked in the 1970s with the rise of new irrigation technologies such
as center pivots and underwater pumps. The farmers now rely on
thousands and thousands of wells that tap into a huge aquifer fed by
the streams that crisscross the region.
The farmers have more to fear than just Atlanta. They are also
watching with dismay as the Army Corps of Engineers sends water
downstream to Florida and Alabama to run power plants and sustain
federally protected mussels.
Johnson, president of the Mitchell County Farm Bureau, is pushing
his neighbors and lawmakers to fight for local control of water.
"Before any water is transferred out, you have to make sure needs
here are taken care of," he said.
Cox, who lives on a serene plot of land along the Flint River,
grows sweet corn, field corn and peanuts. This year's harvest came
out -- peanuts can be surprisingly resilient -- but he is already
worried about next year's.
"I'm just hoping we won't get cut off. This is our livelihood. I'm
a fifth-generation farmer. If I can't water, I won't be able to pass
this land on to my 16-year-old daughter," he said.
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