Water Matters! Symposium Draws Crowds, Highlights Resource Issues

Over 70 citizens and community leaders from five counties gathered Saturday in Tifton to “get their feet wet” on South Georgia water issues.

Organized by local volunteers, the day-long meeting at NESPAL addressed groundwater, the water system, water uses, water quality, blackwater resources, regulations, the politics of water in Georgia and the current water planning process.

“We were thrilled with the wide spectrum of people who turned out for the meeting—everyone from scientists to elected officials to stay-at-home moms,” said event co-chair Karen Hendrix, “People know that water is important but they don’t know much about it. This was the first of what we hope to be many opportunities to learn about our water resources and how we can all work to protect them.”

Presenters said that while the area’s water resources are abundant, the system is under great  pressure from agricultural use, and from land-use practices in towns and fields. The water resources are facing potential increased use by certain industries, including energy generation, such that attention to careful conservation and protection of water resources is crucial now to assure future water availability.

According to Geologist Woody Hicks of the Jones Ecological Research Center, the water table in the Tifton area has dropped 30 feet since 1978, requiring more energy to extract it—and it takes more water to make more energy. Increased development also requires additional energy and water and causes more evaporation, preventing adequate recharge of groundwater and increasing the runoff of surface water.

Dr. Jim Hook, Professor of Soil and Water Resources of University of Georgia said that irrigation for agriculture now claims the lion’s share—about two-thirds—of water use in the area, even more so in recent decades as rainfall has shifted from the summer months to winter months. Still, Georgia’s water resources are large compared with most areas of the country that rely upon irrigation to supply water for crop production. Most irrigated areas lie in semi-arid and desert climates where rainfall cannot lead to recovery of resources tapped for irrigation.

Pollution is widespread in the area, with many streams and rivers showing significant presence of nutrients from agricultural runoff, and fecal coliform bacteria from a variety of sources. Already, there are fishing limits on much of South Georgia waterways because of mercury contamination from energy production facilities. Nap Caldwell of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division explained that while municipal and industrial pollution from pipes has decreased in recent decades, contaminants flowing off the land are not controlled very well. Nutrient standards, a critical issue in “blackwater” and other streams, have not been set.

Water scarcity in other areas of the state and region can impact water availability in South Georgia. The Flint River, which originates near Atlanta and is a key water resource in South Georgia, is entangled in the complex tri-state “water wars,” explained Gordon Rogers, Executive Director of Flint Riverkeeper.

“Fairness is the key to solving Georgia’s water issues,” said Rogers, “Major and minor users, upstream and down, need to be thoroughly accounted for in water planning, and given proper shrift in water allocation. Respect for where the water naturally comes from and where it naturally flows to are paramount to a politically and physically sustainable set of solutions.”

City of Tifton Councilman Dave Hetzel was among many elected officials and candidates at the meeting, and he stressed the importance of getting involved in water issues at the statewide level. “People need to understand that city issues are affected by state decisions. This meeting created a concerned audience. Now we need to make sure our elected officials in Atlanta continue to represent our needs. They have their marching orders,” he said.

Presenters also urged citizens to stay abreast of the ongoing statewide water planning process by communicating with water council members or attending local water council meetings. Talking with state legislators and candidates about water concerns was also encouraged. Information on the water planning process and a list of meeting times can be found at http://www.georgiawaterplanning.org.

Advocacy groups and agencies from across the state provided displays and information on water issues and conservation tips. A list of elected officials, groups involved in water issues and informational websites is available to the public by request at watermatters.ga@gmail.com. Citizens may also contact the group to receive information about upcoming events.

“The Water Symposium was one of the most gratifying experiences I have ever had –working with the committed and talented group of local citizens who made it happen, having the opportunity to learn from the informed and engaging speakers, and hearing the enthusiastic responses from so many who attended,” said Helen Rogers, event co-chair.