The time has come for water use and water conservation planning at the state level across the nation, not just the Southwest. Time is running short for hard decisions by politicians, those in agricultural industries and the general public.

Water planning is not a snap-of-the-finger process. It will take years for planning and action plans to be put in place while chances of droughts and water shortages to metropolitan areas will continue to increase mainly because of population increases and commercial/industry expansion.

"We are entering an era of water reallocation," said Robert Glennon, Ph.D., University of Arizona professor of law and public policy. He said water policy will need to determine how to allocate the limited water resources from lower value to higher value uses.

"There is a vibrantly growing water market in sales and leases of water rights. Where is the water coming from? It's coming from farmers. As we know, farmers use the most water. But what is going to happen to farmers in this era and what is going to happen to food production?" Glennon asked the questions of attendees at the Irrigation Association Show in Phoenix, Ariz., in early December. Glennon has written two popular books about the nation's water issues and was the convention's keynote speaker.

Glennon was involved in a recently completed study looking at the transfer of 31 million acre feet of water rights in the Southwest, "mostly out of agriculture to municipal, industrial and environmental uses." The study contends that savvy farmers selling water rights make adjustments that keep their income high by only eliminating irrigation of their least productive ground, use water rights money to make on-farm improvements that increase production and efficiency of water used (such as switching from furrow to drip irrigation), and/or adjusting the mix of crops grown to those requiring less water and labor.

Little Concern by Georgia

Glennon pointed to the state of Georgia as an example of a state refusing to face reality and not learning its lesson during the severe drought that ended in 2009 because politicians refused to take the severe actions necessary to plan for the future. The legislators are fooling themselves and the public in what they are enacting, he claims.

The metro Atlanta area was reportedly within 90 days of running out of water because its main water source, Lake Lanier, was almost dry. Another report had the nearby city of Athens within 20 days of running out of water.

"You would think that reasonable people, state and local officials, would respond aggressively when looking at the precipice that they were falling into, but they did not. The response was incredibly trepid. To be sure, they did impose some modest restrictions against watering lawns, filling swimming pools and washing cars, but beyond that not much," Glennon claimed.

He also criticized the state for not requiring water pumping permits of surface or ground water, if use by a company or individual is less than 100,000 gallons of water per day.

Georgian Sees Progress

At the summer conference of the Irrigation Association held in Williamsburg, Va., Mark Risse, Ph.D., University of Georgia professor of biological agricultural engineering with an appointment for policy and Extension work, agreed that lax permitting has contributed to water problems. But he noted that unbridled population growth has exaggerated the state’s water problems. The metro Atlanta area is projected to have grown to about 11 million people today from 4.6 million in 1970.

This means that when it rains 50 inches in a year, then Atlanta is able to maintain its water sources, including Lake Lanier at near capacity, and it is not uncommon for the state to receive 50 inches. But if the rainfall drops to below 40 inches per year, the lake cannot supply the industries and population with adequate water, Risse said.

Water problems throughout the state were occurring during the recent extreme drought. "The one thing you never hear about in the press — it is always about Atlanta's growth — is the irrigation systems in south Georgia that the farmers are using. You can see when it gets dry and the farmers turn on their pumps; the river levels drop dramatically," Risse said.

In line with Glennon's criticism, Risse reported that the governor appointed a 150-person task force to figure out what to do without Lake Lanier water as a source of drinking water because a judge had ruled the Corp of Engineer-built lake had never been built for drinking water purposes. When completed, the task force had no solution to the problem.

But Risse contends that Georgia is stepping up to the plate swinging. "In the recent legislative session, we passed one of the most aggressive water conservation programs, I think, in the eastern United States, and we are in the middle of a state water planning process."

Risse has to admit that it has been a slow process of comprehensive water planning and water conservation development plans. The first mandate for water planning came out of the state’s legislature in 2004, years prior to the big drought.

Combined Water Info

"For years, Georgia had a water quantity program and a water quality program. They were separate and no one talked to each other at all, and we all really know that what happens on the quality side affects the quantity side and vice versa. For the first time ever, Georgia is looking at integrating the water quantity and water quality plan for the state," Risse explained.

The state has needed to know how much water it has and the quality of it. Risse said, "The legislature recognized that each region of the state is different, and we should develop plans on a regional basis. What we are asking is for each regional council (total of 11) to forecast regional resource needs to determine the difference between their needs and what they have and to develop a water conservation plan for each region."

Each of the regional planning council lines follows watershed basins except for the district that pre-existed the full state planning. This Atlanta area council contains 51 percent of the state's population and covers parts of seven different watershed basins, which throws a wrench into the works.

Because water flows from the north southward, the use of water above a region will impact the water available below and total regional planning.

"So, council people in each region say we are going to do our plan based on this much water coming into our basin. In reality, are they going to have that water flow? One of the things we foresee, although we haven't seen it yet, is a high likelihood that these basins are going to start arguing with each other just like states argue with each other, and it could even end up in court," Risse said.

Agriculture Water Use

Agriculture is big in Georgia, and ag makes huge withdrawals of surface and groundwater supplies. Groundwater depletion is obvious and continuing. In general, Georgia's southwest region is focused on agricultural use of water whereas the northern regions are focused on water for industrial use and development projects, and the coastal region cares about tourism and environmental issues.

Conservation planning is an ultimate goal, but the state doesn't do much tracking of well locations or the pumping of water. Permits for pumping aren't really enforced throughout the state. Approximately three years ago was the first time legislation required permitted users to report their water use once per year. A pumping permit is for any amount of water; there is no limit to water use.

Risse was involved in legislative-requested data projections for agricultural water use through the year 2050, which is more or less a calculated guess based on projections of what crops will be grown, new technology developments and the lack of current water use volumes.

Conservation goals have been set, but there is no enforcement. "One of our biggest problems is that there is absolutely no funding identified for this," Risse said. "There are no hammers if we don't meet the goals. Right now there isn't any penalty. I personally think we invested a whole lot of time in this, and I wonder if it is going to have any impact."