Last spring, farmers in the Mississippi Delta responded to a call for a voluntary monitoring program, installing flow meters on more than 5 percent of the irrigation wells in each county. By doing so, they avoided what could have become a mandatory program.
Now the second part of that effort is coming due, reporting the water use from those flow meters to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. The deadline for supplying that information is Feb. 1, MDEQ officials say.
“You cannot best conserve water if you don’t know how much you’re using,” said Kay Whittington, director of the Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Land and Water Resources. Besides reporting the water usage from 2014, growers are being asked to install meters on another 5 percent of the wells in each county in 2015.
Speaking at the 2014 Mississippi Delta Irrigation Summit at Stoneville in December, Whittington said MDEQ leaders believe the voluntary conservation practices have the potential to save time and money as well as water for Delta producers who irrigate their crops.
“We also believe water can make the difference in the sustainability of the Delta,” she said. “I would encourage you to talk to Delta irrigation specialists, Delta F.A.R.M., other task force members and producers who have put some of these practices on the ground. I think you will find they are the best advocates for some of these practices.
As of Jan. 13, six Delta counties had met their goals for reporting water usage from the flow meters installed in 2014. The remaining counties had from as few as two to as many as 38 wells with meters that had not been reported. Sunflower County had the highest number of unreported wells.
Whittington is MDEQ’s representative on the Delta Sustainable Water Resources Task Force, created by Gov. Phil Bryant to ensure the Mississippi Delta will continue to have a sustainable water supply. Other members: Delta Council, Delta F.A.R.M., Mississippi Farm Bureau, Mississippi Soil and Water Conservation Commission, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Vicksburg District Corps of Engineers and Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Joint Water Management District.
The task force was created after studies indicated the 18 Delta and part-Delta counties have been using water from the alluvial aquifer faster than it can be replenished by rainfall or the Mississippi River. The Delta has experienced two relatively wet years in 2013 and 2014, but the drawdown in the aquifer has continued.
MDEQ officials have refrained from ordering moratoriums on pumping or other more drastic measures to reduce irrigation water use in the Delta, asking growers to work together to make the aquifer more sustainable.
“DEQ is not about fees, DEQ does not have the authority to charge for water, and, under the current law, we have no intention of trying to get that authority,” Whittington said. “However, we are charged with the responsibility to protect the aquifer from de-watering, and that’s all we’re trying to do.”
A moratorium on new wells or requiring some or all wells to shut down at intervals is one option the department could use to address the situation, she said, “but we do not believe this is the best solution or in the best interests of the Delta.”
The department, instead, is working through the Delta Sustainable Water Resources Task Force to help make information about water conservation available through producer meetings, media outlets and events like the “Turn-row Talks” that were attended by 200 producers on farms around the Delta last summer.”
Growers can also work with Mississippi State University Extension specialists and USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service experts using NRCS 319 water conservation project funds to find ways to apply irrigation water more efficiently on their farms.
“We don’t have years to wait, trying to figure out what to do or decades to try to find a solution,” said Whittington. “The problem of a declining aquifer level can only be solved through a Delta-wide commitment to water conservation.”
The 2014 Mississippi Delta Irrigation Summit, which included 18 presentations centered around improving irrigation efficiency in the Delta, was one of those educational opportunities, she noted. More will be offered in the future.
The Department of Environmental Quality sent letters to participants asking them to submit their water use data in September. Those were followed by a postcard reminder of the need to report the information in November.
Producers who have questions about the reporting or need assistance completing the forms, should contact Wayne Williams with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality at 601 961-5610.
Water continues to be a problem across much of the Sunbelt region. Although producers in the Southeast and Mid-South have mostly received higher-than-normal rainfall in recent years, pockets of drought remain.
In the Southwest and Far West, much of the farming areas remain caught in a drought that shows little sign of releasing its grip anytime soon.
As a reminder of how politics continues to be mixed with water issues, the California Supreme Court issued a Jan. 12 ruling that upheld another court ruling that protects the delta smelt and limits the pumping of river water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The Court denied appeals from water agencies, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Central Valley farmers.