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Drought: Farmers dig deeper, water tables drop, competition heats up

A drier 'new normal' is forcing US farmers to dig deeper wells. That affects water tables and municipal supplies, and, if climatologists are right about global warming, it could also mean more competition for less water in the future.

By Staff writer / August 8, 2012

A farmer walks back to his truck in central Georgia along the boundary between irrigated and nonirrgated fields. Persistent drought encourages more irrigation.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

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Unadilla, Ga.

The long-term drought that is unlocking disaster aid for 40 percent of America's most fertile hillocks and valleys has turned central Georgia into what Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan called in July "the toughest place in the country."

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So on those rare afternoons when dark clouds stack up against the heat-seared horizon, farmer Eddie Green allows himself a smile.

"That's what I like to see," says Mr. Green, who farms 500 acres of mostly corn and cotton in Dooly County. "At least someone has a shot at getting some rain."

His rain dreams are more altruistic than selfish, as he no longer depends on the rain to irrigate his crops. The epiphany came last year.

"It was the hottest, driest summer I'd ever seen," he says, standing amid impressive rows of flowering cotton, "and I had the biggest, most profitable crop I'd ever had."

Instead of just praying for rain, which former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue famously did during the north Georgia drought of 2007, Green has joined a growing number of Peach State farmers to consider a once-unimaginable tactic to deal with the drought: full irrigation.

IN PICTURES: Drought in the USA 

Thirty years ago, 95 percent of Georgia farmland was "dry," or nonirrigated. Since 2007, when the current dry weather pattern established itself, Georgia farmers added irrigation to half a million acres, an increase of one-third. Green himself has gone from 50 percent irrigated in 2007 to nearly 100 percent today, largely in response to the drought – and as insurance against what some fear could be a longer-term pattern of hotter weather.

"The drought motivates everything I do at this point," says Green, who has his own wells.

So far his efforts have paid off, putting him in the not entirely welcome position of profiting from a national hardship – the worst US drought since 1956. He isn't alone. Dooly County as a whole increased the value of its row crop production from $100 million in 2010 to $140 million in 2011, perhaps the drought's apex.

Paradoxically, if you have water, there may be no better time to be a farmer. US net farm income last year reached a record $98 billion, and with commodity prices still high and rising, that record could be challenged this year, even with drought-lowered yields.

But irrigating to slake the soil's thirst puts attempts to achieve drought resistance on a collision course with growing concerns, even in the humid Southeast, about water allocation and depletion of the aquifers, adding more uncertainty for America's agricultural juggernaut.

"Once those irrigation pumps get turned on, it reduces the surface flow in river valleys and tributaries. And once people start establishing those connections, it becomes a legal battle," says Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the University of Nebraska's National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln. "That's the danger of seeing that shift to irrigation – it's not an infinite resource. At some point the water table will respond."

The US Geological Survey has found central Georgia suffering from long-term ground water depletion similar to that experienced by the Ogallala aquifer beneath Texas and the High Plains aquifer beneath Nebraska and Kansas.

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