Published on 01/30/02

Urban Agriculture Group Plans Water Use

Not being able to water your homegrown tomatoes is an inconvenience. Not being able to water 4,000 greenhouse plants is a major concern if you own the greenhouse.

To keep the state's drought from burning up their profits, representatives of nine Georgia urban agriculture associations met in August 2000 to discuss the lingering water shortage. From that meeting, they formed the Georgia Urban Agriculture Coalition.

The coalition's first work was to begin searching for solutions to the water shortage problems facing the people who grow, install and maintain the plants that brighten urban landscapes.

Reservoirs Still Below Average

"Although recent weather systems and storms have brought some immediate relief, water levels at reservoirs across the state remain well below average," said Wayne Gardner, coordinator of the University of Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture and a coalition member. "Weather experts continue to predict a hotter and drier summer than the 50-year average."

Gardner says the state's drought isn't totally to blame for the current water shortage. The growing population is increasingly straining Georgia's water supply.

"The drought that began four years ago was a major wakeup call for us all," Gardner said. "It actually just turned an impending water crisis into an immediate water crisis."

Georgia's population has doubled in the past 50 years. Roughly half of that growth was in the past decade.

"If the population growth trends continue, Georgia could be home to more than 16 million people within 30 years," Gardner said. "This growth is occurring with a relatively constant supply of water that originates solely within our state."

Planning For The Drought and Beyond

The water crisis in Georgia won't end when the drought does, he said. So Georgia must develop a water-use plan.

Since the success of urban agriculture in Georgia relies heavily on water, the GUAC decided they had to become actively involved in developing a state water-use plan.

The coalition organized a water task force to focus on developing strategies for the industry to follow. The task force's first objective was to document the size and economic impact of the state's urban agricultural industry.

Economists and horticulturists from the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences conducted a survey that caused some jaws to drop.

"The impact to the state's economy is almost $5.7 billion each year," Gardner said. "And that's not counting valued-added impact like (agricultural) tourism."

Science-based Guidelines

The second objective was to establish science-based water-management guidelines for urban agriculture.

"The guidelines ensure plant health and survival while conserving water," Gardner said. "Basically, we're trying to help the industry remain economically viable during water shortages while stressing water management and conservation."

These new irrigation guidelines now serve as a basis for intermediate-phase outdoor water restriction plans for Georgia cities and water authorities.

Next, the GUAC's task force mobilized members to help develop a state drought management plan. A draft was released this month for public comment.

"Urban agriculture interests are represented in the draft document because of the hard work of the coalition members," Gardner said.

"Georgia's urban agricultural industries must remain involved in all aspects of these water issues," he said. "These industries are only beginning to show how they conserve and preserve the quantity and quality of our water resources while making a huge impact on the state's economy."

Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.