Georgia Digs Deep To Counter Drought

fromGPB

A quarter of the state is classified as being under "exceptional drought" — the highest level recorded. As creeks and riverbeds dry up, farmers are drilling deeper wells to get water for their crops. Now the state is cutting back its permits because of environmental concerns.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

One of the driest places in the country is in Georgia. More than a quarter of the state is in what's called exceptional drought. That is the highest level recorded. Even though the corn harvest is over, farmers are now struggling to keep their cotton and peanut crops watered. And that's created another problem - more and more farmers looking for water deep down.

Here's Josephine Bennett of Georgia Public Broadcasting.

JOSEPHINE BENNETT, BYLINE: Jarrell Greene knows about water. He's spent almost 50 years drilling wells in Georgia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE)

BENNETT: He and a co-worker are using a down-the-hole hammer drill. It looks like a mini jackhammer, and they need it. The soil here isn't loose. It's a hard, compact, dense red clay, almost like drilling down into concrete. Green says he's never been busier.

GERALD GREEN: This is a pretty good spot to drill a water well. We're standing in the shade, but most of them are not that way. They're in the middle of an open area and very hot. Long days. My guys make 60 hours a week routinely.

BENNETT: Despite working those long hours, his wait list is three months long. Water from this well in Macon, Georgia is being piped into a large pond to keep catfish alive, but most of his work these days is agricultural. The number of well applications to the state has soared to more than 2,000. That's a 500 percent increase in just the last two years. Geologist Doug Wilson tracks water usage in Georgia for the Water Planning and Policy Center.

He points to a map covered in colored dots. Yellow dots represent wells, green dots show where farmers are taking water directly out of creeks, rivers and streams. Wilson says that's not good in a period of drought.

DOUG WILSON: A lot of irrigated land, very, very dry conditions, favorable commodity prices that are economically dictating to somebody in that row crop agricultural business to plant and grow. And so those thing all combine, you end up with dry creeks.

BENNETT: Those dry creeks are precisely why the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has quit accepting new applications for well permits in southwest Georgia. When the wells are pumping, it drains the water so low it cuts off springs feeding those waterways. That's the problem facing farmer Jimmy Webb. He peers over the edge of Ichauway-Notchaway Creek as he swats gnats away. His pump pipes water into holding ponds and then into irrigation systems. He grows corn, cotton, and peanuts on his 3,000-acre farm in Calhoun County, which is one of the most drought-stricken counties in the country.

JIMMY WEBB: The creek is so low, we can only run one pump. We're not able to keep up, and we're hoping we've got enough in those reservoirs to finish the crop out, and it's going to be close. We need some rain, some Mother Nature.

BENNETT: But Webb says Mother Nature is not cooperating, and at this point it's going to take something like a tropical storm to make a dent in the deficit.

WEBB: And this is what drives the economy down here in Southwest Georgia. We gotta make a crop. If we make a crop, there's all kind of other jobs that are tied around it, us making - having production. Without that water, there's no production.

BENNETT: It's more than just farmers who are worried. Early next year the Georgia legislature will look at what restrictions it can put in place, including going as far as paying farmers not to farm, in an effort to save the water supply. For NPR News, I'm Josephine Bennett in Macon, Georgia.

DAVID GREEN, HOST:

The drought is also hitting winemakers in the South, and also the Midwest. But when it comes to wine, the dry conditions are not all negative.

MONTAGNE: The heat and lack of rain means grapes are less likely to be hit by pests and disease, and they will be more flavorful. That translates into higher quality wine.

GREEN: The downside, though, is that the harvests will also be smaller. A winemaker in Nebraska tells Reuters that he expects wine prices will go up as a result.

MONTAGNE: The nation's largest wine producer is, of course, California, and here the dry weather hasn't been much of a problem for vineyards. In fact, a spokesperson for the Wine Institute says it's looking to be all around a good year for California wines.

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