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AgWeb - Whose Water Is It?


Whose Water Is It?
by Barbara Fairchild

In Georgia, Marty McLendon auctioned off surface water rights to more than 100 acres to help maintain water levels in the Flint River during a recent drought. In Oregon, farmer Marshall Staunton doesn’t know from one growing season to another if he or the fish will have rights to the water in the Klamath Basin.

Rapid population growth in parts of the U.S. is drinking up water resources faster than they can be refreshed. As a result, farmers and aquatic species are getting squeezed. As the competition increases, it begs the question: Whose water is it?

The basis of Marty McLendon’s water problems started more than a decade ago, when Florida sued Georgia for restricting water flow in the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, Flint river basin. The basin feeds Florida’s Apalachicola Bay, home to an active fin-fish industry and 90% of the state’s oyster harvest.

Controversy over proposed upstream diversion of fresh water—primarily for thirsty Atlanta—resulted in a flood of lawsuits, environmental impact studies and piecemeal fixes.

One fix is the Flint River Drought Protection Act that pays farmers to not use water by bidding surface water rights into the program. McLendon, one of 250 participating farmers, put marginal ground up for auction. “It’s hard to justify taking the best land out of production. Asking bids ranged from $190 to $600 an acre,” McLendon says. He let more than 100 acres go for $190 each.

Even though a small percentage of eligible farmers participated, Rob McDowell of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division estimates the auction saved 61 million gallons of water per day during a time when water resources were extremely limited. Other fixes include building new storage reservoirs, promoting conservation tillage and improving irrigation efficiencies. “There’s a moratorium on new irrigation permits in the Flint River Basin, and irrigation growth will continue to be held back if we [farmers] don’t become more efficient,” McLendon says.

A flowmeter law enacted by the 2003 Georgia legislature will help farmers know how much water they pump. The Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission will place measuring devices on 21,000 sites at no cost to pump owners.

Metering and auctions are a start to protecting future agricultural use of Georgia’s water, but it may not be enough. “There are strong forces at work to get more water for Atlanta,” says Woody Hicks, Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center.

Meanwhile, a tri-state (Alabama, Florida, Georgia) compact to soothe the troubled waters in Apalachicola Bay has dissolved. Florida governor Jeb Bush refused to sign the agreement, saying the compact didn’t provide adequate water for the Florida bay. The issue is in federal court.

Miles away, on the opposite side of the country, farmers in Oregon’s Klamath Basin testify to the insensitivity of federal officials. In 2001, federal agencies abruptly turned off the spigot that irrigates 200,000 acres in the Klamath Basin Reclamation Project (one of many Bureau of Reclamation projects designed to promote agriculture in the arid West) to protect the suckerfish, an endangered species.

The battle between fish and farmer continues. “That year, farmers knew before they planted a crop there would be no water,” says Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA). “In 2003, water was promised, so they planted accordingly. In mid-June, they were notified water would be turned off for a week at the end of the month.”

By playing every political chip they had, the KWUA managed to keep water flowing. Marshall Staunton, who farms land his grandfather homesteaded in 1927, says the biological opinion that triggered the near shutdown is too restrictive.

“We were within an eyelash of a five-day shut-off when 98% of our expenses were in the ground, and it was because of lowering the water level of a 25-mile-long lake a tenth of an inch,” Staunton says.

In the last two years, KWUA has fended off two congressional attempts to limit their access to water and several other litigations. “We’ve won most of the battles but feel like we’re losing the war,” Keppen says. “It’s tough for project farmers to get operating loans when there’s no guarantee they’ll have adequate water.”

A National Academy of Sciences committee report offers some hope. It absolves Klamath project irrigators from endangering suckers and says the decision to shut off the water in 2001 was unjustified. It also concludes the Klamath project did not cause a 2002 downstream fish kill. Most importantly, it says recovery of suckers and coho salmon cannot be achieved by actions that are exclusively or primarily focused on operation of the Klamath Basin Reclamation Project. Keppen points out that the project is only 200,000 acres in a 10.5 million acre watershed.

Like their brethren in Georgia, Klamath Basin farmers shoulder the burden of conserving water. Some use precision land leveling to let water flow without pooling. Others are shifting from flood irrigation to sprinklers. A federally funded water bank encourages farmers to idle cropland at a rate of $187.50 per acre.

But, as in Georgia, these are short-term fixes. “We need leadership to get everybody to the same table. Then, perhaps, we’ll see progress toward solving our water issues,” Keppen says.

Editor’s Note: For a look at the Ogallala Aquifer and how farmers are faring, see High Plains, Low Water in this issue.

Other Hot Spots
The war for water is not isolated to a few places. Agricultural water issues are nationwide.

•Arkansas. A shallow alluvial aquifer is declining so rapidly that by 2015, it will not sustain the 1,000 farms that cover about 250,000 acres in Arkansas’ Grand Prairie region. Rice growers are looking for alternate water sources. One plan calls for a $200,000 federal project to divert water from the White River—a plan that invokes the ire of environmentalists concerned for the habitat of black bears.

•Colorado. Rapid population growth pits cities against agriculture for water resources. Thornton, a Denver suburb, purchased more than 120 farms—not for agricultural use but for their water rights. But because it is too costly to transfer the water to the suburb, none of the water has been used. Now Fort Collins may rent the water from Thornton. Ownership of water from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District has changed dramatically since 1957, when the Colorado–Big Thompson Project came online. In its first year of operation, 85% of its water was used by agriculture and 15% by municipalities and industry. Today, agriculture uses only 39%, while municipal and industrial use climbed to 61%.

•New Mexico. Farmers, municipalities and environmentalists disagree as to how much water the silvery minnow, an endangered species, needs in the Middle Rio Grande. •Arizona. Since 1992, suburban sprawl in Maricopa County, Ariz., has eaten up 53% of the farmland, dropping total acres from 1.5 million to fewer than 700,000. Subdivisions and shopping centers compete not only for land but also for water.

Action plan. The Department of Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation are addressing water allocation challenges like these in a program called Water 2025: Preventing Crises and Conflict in the West. It focuses attention on the explosive population growth in Western urban areas, the emerging need for water for environmental and recreational uses and the importance of farm production. A report prepared by the two agencies points out that in some areas, the existing water supplies will be inadequate to satisfy the demands of cities, farms and the environment even under normal water supply conditions.

To prevent conflicts, the report calls for conservation, collaboration and improved technology. Some possibilities include:

•Canal modernization. Bureau of Reclamation research shows that every dollar spent returns $3 to $5 in conserved water.

•Water banks and markets. Water banks in Idaho already allow users to transfer storage entitlements to other uses. The banks provide in-stream flows for salmon on the Endangered Species Act list.

•Purification. Water 2025 looks to technology to purify and desalinate water, making currently unusable sources available for human use.

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