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Georgia avoids drought declaration

No severe drought declaration will be made this year for farmers in Georgia's Flint River Basin, according to a recent announcement by officials with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

The EPD has the authority to make such a declaration if it is warranted, according to provisions contained in the Flint River Drought Protection Act, passed into law by the Georgia General Assembly in 2000.

By March 1 of this year, Georgia EPD Director Carol A. Couch, in consultation with the state climatologist and the state geologist, determined if a severe drought declaration should be issued for the lower Flint River Basin, as required by the Flint River Drought Protection Act. The Act established a fund to compensate farmers in the Flint River Basin who voluntarily stop irrigating their crops with surface water whenever a severe drought is declared.

The Flint River Drought Protection Act was intended to allow a buyback of groundwater during designated dry years. EPD officials, in consultation with other experts, try to forecast when a dry year occurs and how much water could be gained from reducing irrigation. Then, they send out bids to the farmers in the area.

The Flint River Drought Protection Act was enacted to better manage the water resources of Georgia during periods of drought. A drought was declared on March 1, 2001, and an irrigated-acreage auction was held. The result was to voluntarily eliminate, for the balance of 2001, surface-water irrigation on 33,101 acres from 194 farms at an average accepted bid of $135 per acre, with bids ranging from $30 to $200 per acre.

A drought also was declared for the 2002 growing season, and 40,894 acres were voluntarily removed from irrigation. The average 2002 bid was $128 per acre. No drought was declared for 2003, 2004, 2005 or 2006, making 2007 the fifth consecutive year that a severe drought declaration has not been necessary in the lower Flint River Basin.

The 90-day precipitation forecast, current stream flows, and groundwater levels in the lower Flint River Basin do not support a severe drought declaration for this year, says EPD Director Couch.

While the lower Flint River Basin continues to experience dry conditions, it is in better shape than many other parts of the state where abnormally dry conditions are prevalent, says State Climatologist David Stooksbury.

EPD and the Office of the State Climatologist monitor data from the U.S. Geological

Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the University of Georgia. Stream flow, groundwater levels, winter precipitation and three-month precipitation outlooks are used for drought monitoring and to determine its severity.

Climate models, however, are not able to consistently predict several months in advance the timing or occurrence of short-term droughts, says Stooksbury. Agricultural droughts can develop over a two to three-week period. Short-term agricultural droughts can be devastating for farmers, he says. However, the hydrological impacts of short-term agricultural droughts are minimal.

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