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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.

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"Farmers ... are realizing that if they want to be sustainable and continue to farm, they're going to have to have a reliable source of water," says Sam Fowler, director of the Alabama Water Resources Research Institute at the University of Alabama, Huntsville.

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Congress, for its part, is focusing on the short-term effects of the drought, potentially to the detriment of long-term planning. Before its August break, lawmakers wrestled over whether to scrap the 2012 farm bill – which includes an end to direct payments to farmers in exchange for broader insurance coverage – in favor of a one-year emergency extension of the current bill to deal with the drought damage.

While the extension would include billions in emergency aid, House Republicans are insisting that the aid be paid for by eliminating billions worth of funding for conservation and water management programs.

"We recognize farmers need aid in this emergency drought situation, [but] sacrificing the very programs that help mitigate the impacts of drought and other disasters is extremely shortsighted," Gene Schmidt, president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, complained.

Drought is part of the natural state, and it's far from clear whether the dry conditions will persist. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center is expecting a Pacific El Niño to develop, which could restore moisture this year to some of the most drought-stricken regions.

Yet some climatologists see the current drought as part of a larger global pattern toward higher evaporation rates that will continue to force farmers even in wet parts of the US to compete more assiduously for ground water.

"These changes will probably result in reduced soil moisture for crops, increased demands on ground water resources, and greater competition among water users in the arid western United States," writes Oregon State University resource economist John Antle in a recent paper titled "Agriculture and the Food System: Adaptation to Climate Change."

That tension is already being felt in Georgia, which is locked in a decades-long legal battle with Alabama and Florida over the flows of the Chattahoochee and Flint river systems. So far, while acknowledging that aquifer levels are as much as 40 feet below normal, Georgia's environmental permitting agencies have continued to approve well-drilling permits for farms.

Farmers say flow metering shows they are using a fraction of the water that critics contend. But in Apalachicola, Fla., where water levels are at record lows thanks to low flows coming out of Georgia, activists say that farmers – or, more succinctly, farm policies – are partly to blame.

"Droughts are naturally occurring events; but the way the water is being managed in Georgia, the droughts are much deeper and last for more extended periods," says Dan Tonsmiere of the Apalachicola Riverkeepers. "Everybody on the river says, 'I'm only using this much. I'm not affecting the river.' But it's the cumulative impacts that have dropped the flows in the spring and early summer on the Apalachicola during drought times by 30 and 40 percent."

"The reality is that we can do so much better," Mr. Tonsmiere adds. "What farmers are seeing now is that the drawdowns can affect the farmer next door. I think that helps to get us to a place where we understand the situation better and understand that there has to be limits, all of which can help build the political will to share the water."

IN PICTURES: Drought in the USA 

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