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Letter: The ‘hole’ truth on Delta groundwater

Letter: The ‘hole’ truth on Delta groundwater

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeff Morgan is a third generation farmer in Sunflower and Leflore counties in the Mississippi Delta. He farms with his father and brother, growing wheat and soybeans. They have also grown rice and raised catfish and cattle in the past.

With innovations such as irrigation, modern agriculture — the driving force in the Mississippi Delta’s economy — creates jobs, increases production, and keeps money flowing all year. Irrigated farmland has a significantly high value and provides money to county tax bases.

If the Delta began to lose irrigated acres, every business would feel the effects. Land values would drop dramatically and the tax base would suffer.

The Mississippi River Alluvial Aquifer supplies the majority of water for irrigation in the Delta. The aquifer has shown an average “overdraft” of around 300,000 acre-feet for the past decade. That means more is coming out of the aquifer than is going back in annually.

In the same timeframe, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has issued permits for newly irrigated acres that use about 350,000 acre-feet of water. This additional demand has not increased the overdraft, but how?

Conservation practices with irrigation have been adopted by Delta growers and are working. Had it not been for the new acres, there would be no overdraft today, and without conservation, the overdraft would be increasing each year.

DEQ is required by law to consider the impact to current permit holders prior to issuing new ones. Stronger consideration to the impact on current users may need to be explored. It’s easy to make a knee-jerk decision that current users must be wasting water, therefore, causing the overdraft. The simple fact is that the aquifer we use does not have the capacity to meet our needs.

This sounds like a bad thing, but it is not. Growers who do not use one of the conservation options listed on the permit application risk losing their permits all together or having to install flow meters to measure the amount of water they use annually and report it to DEQ.

Along with conservation, finding alternative water supplies has also become widespread. Storage reservoirs are popping up everywhere to store water from rainfall and/or streams during the wet months for irrigation in the hot summers. Projects to bring water from the Tallahatchie River and projects to pump directly from the Sunflower and Quiver rivers are being installed at a rapid pace.

The conservation options we currently have on permits have been researched and have data shows the amount of water each saves, energy cost decreases and crop yield increases. Implementing them can be expensive, but it’s a win-win situation and growers are on board.

The acre-feet of water we can gain with conservation and the projects to bring water into the Delta are enough to irrigate every acre of farmland in the Delta.

The issue of the Delta’s groundwater supply is serious enough that Gov. Bryant, through the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, formed the Delta Sustainable Water Resources Task Force. Members of the task force include Farm Bureau, Delta Council, and YMD Joint Water Management District.

The DEQ director, who leads the task force, promised not to make it a top-down organization and to reach consensus-based decisions. Unfortunately, that has not happened.

The first major action has been to rush the implementation of a “Phase One Metering Program” as soon as possible. Part of Phase One would require every grower to install flow meters at their expense and to report water use annually to DEQ. Phase One would cost Delta growers millions of dollars and there would be additional cost to taxpayers in ongoing administration.

Flow meter installation has been the penalty for not adopting conservation on the very permits DEQ is issuing today. How have some become a tool to help the Delta’s water problems? Growers can’t prove they are being responsible with irrigation water unless they meter and report it. The opportunity to even have that discussion has not come up, and suggestions to consider alternatives to a government-regulated metering program are met with “too little too late” or “you measure what you meter.” There is nothing that lets a grower decide what tools best fit their operations.

A fairly represented, open discussion on the best ways to provide groundwater for current use and the generations to come needs to take place.

If flow meters or any other tool or technique proves to provide the best results, then so be it. All growers may not like the ultimate solution, but they at least they can be shown why that decision was made.

Bills offered in the past two legislative sessions would lead to taxation of groundwater. Fortunately, those bills have failed, but there is no reason to think they will stop coming up. Government regulation to install meters and report water use to a state agency would be irresistible to legislators looking for a revenue source.

Taxing irrigation water is not even the most dangerous outcome of the task force’s Phase One metering initiative. Many scenarios could devastate Delta farms and the economies they provide for.

Imagine what would happen to a crop being grown in a terribly hot, dry summer without sufficient irrigation. If the grower’s meter showed the allocated amount had been used up by mid-July, he would have to stop irrigating. The crop would not just suffer a yield reduction, it would completely burn up.

Growers would have to switch to non-irrigated production, pulling money and jobs from the economy.

Production lenders would have to consider this new risk when deciding on crop loans.

Alternatives growers would have need to be carefully considered before a government regulation is put in place.

Both Farm Bureau and YMD oppose mandatory metering programs, but both have offered to help study the benefits of meters to see how they fit into the solution. Current leaders at the Delta Coucil are supporting the Phase One program, despite not having policy on the issue or support from a majority of its membership.

If we work together and continue to find workable solutions, the Delta could end up being one of, if not the last place on earth people can come and know they can produce a crop. People flock to areas that can provide oil, coal, even simple relaxation. Image how they would flock to an area that can provide life. The Mississippi Delta can be that region, and that’s exciting for our future generations!

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