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State to lift irrigation permit ban along Flint Basin

ATLANTA - A six-year-old ban on new irrigation permits for farmers in the Flint River Basin should be lifted in time for the 2006 growing season, state environmental officials said Thursday.

The long-awaited news came during a briefing on results of a newly completed multi-year scientific study, which concluded that irrigation affects ground water beneath the region only during droughts.

The state Environmental Protection Division imposed a moratorium on the granting of new irrigation permits in December 1999 - during a drought that eventually lasted four years - because of uncertainties over how increasing use of irrigation was affecting the Floridan aquifer.

"Agricultural water use used to be the great unknown in Georgia,'' Rob McDowell, the EPD staff member who headed the study, told members of the Georgia Water Council, which is in the early stages of developing Georgia's first statewide comprehensive water management plan.

"Since the moratorium was announced, our knowledge of agricultural water-use has gone up several quantum leaps.''

The moratorium on irrigation permits in Southwest Georgia is the second state-imposed water ban that is expected to be lifted in the coming months. A moratorium on groundwater withdrawal permits in the 24-county coastal region also is likely to come off soon because of results from a study showing the effects of saltwater intrusion are more limited than previously thought.

Along the Flint River, some 1,300 irrigation permit applications are being held up by the six-year ban, said Carol Couch, the EPD's director.

Responding to complaints from farmers who couldn't get irrigation permits, several state lawmakers from the region introduced a bill last year calling for an end to the moratorium. But Couch argued at the time that the ban needed to remain in place until the study was completed.

According to a water plan the state is developing for the basin, the lifting of the moratorium would be accompanied by stricter requirements for permits than were in place before the ban.

An advisory committee working with the EPD is recommending that applications for new permits be evaluated based upon how that additional withdrawal of groundwater would affect existing permit holders.

The panel also is suggesting imposition of a $250 application fee, and permit applicants would have to file a water-conservation plan.

McDowell said Georgia farmers already are practicing conservation in a number of ways. He said most center-pivot irrigation systems now have low-pressure fixtures, and end guns have been equipped with automatic shutoffs so they don't water roads and wooded areas.

"In the past, we just watered because the calendar said we hadn't had rain in six days,'' said Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, a farmer and member of the water council. "We've adjusted and are continuing to adjust.''

Still, rule changes the EPD is preparing to propose to the Flint River Drought Protection Act passed by the legislation in 2000 would give the state the power to reimpose the permit moratorium during droughts.

"Under drought (conditions), we'll have to be much more aggressive in taking wells off line,'' said Couch.

The proposed rules changes are due to be considered by the state Board of Natural Resources in February.

Assuming there's not a drought this winter, Couch said the permit moratorium would be lifted once the new rules are in place.