Published on 12/04/02

Study to help sustain major river basin’s future

Water is not the unlimited resource it was once believed to be in Georgia. Its quality and quantity are uncertain, especially as it relates to agricultural use. But a new initiative hopes to answer some water questions for one of the state’s largest farm and forestry producing regions.

The Suwannee River Basin Water Resources Management Initiative is a cooperative project between the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Southeast Watershed Research Laboratory and the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

How do agricultural practices and other land uses affect the supply and quality of water in this basin? The people? The economy? The environment?

No one can say for sure right now.

“With this project we want to provide the stakeholders of this region with science-based data to help guide water resource planning for the area,” said George Vellidis, an agricultural engineer with UGA’s National Environmentally Sound Production Agriculture Laboratory in Tifton, Ga.

Interstate Basin

The Suwannee River basin is a major interstate basin that has until now been one of the least developed in Georgia. As this area continues to grow, agricultural, industrial and municipal stakeholders will have to share, Vellidis said.

The Suwannee River basin covers some 10,000 square miles. About 6,000 square miles, or 2.6 million acres, are in Georgia. The largest undammed drainage basin in Georgia, the Suwannee River covers about 19 southeast Georgia counties, from Brooks County east to Charlton County.

It starts around Crisp County and runs south through the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area, crosses the Georgia-Florida line and eventually spills into the Gulf of Mexico.

Creating the Model

As part of the cooperative project, scientists will install and monitor a network of rain, groundwater and stream gauges, collect and analyze water samples, collect data on the land and water resources and other physical, biological and cultural features of this region.

The data collected over the next five years by this study will be used to create a water model for this area. With this model, policymakers and water users can more fairly make future water plans. Project scientists will also share the Georgia data with scientists doing similar research in Florida for its part of the basin.

Most of the land in the Suwannee River basin in Georgia is used to support the area’s large agricultural and forestry industries, which are also its major economic drivers. Farmers there raise peanuts, cotton, corn and other major row crops. But, increasingly, large confined-animal farms, such as chicken houses, are moving into the area.

Findings from the study will also help support better management practices for farmers in the area. “Because of this, the Georgia Cotton Commission has been a key supporter of this project,” Vellidis said.

Funding for the Georgia project will come from federal Agriculture Appropriations bills, said U.S. Congressman Jack Kingston (R), whose 1st District covers much of the river basin. There was $480,000 in the 2002 bill. There is currently $600,000 in the 2003 House bill, which will be voted on when Congress returns in January. The House and Senate both have to pass a bill before its final.

“The research that sustains our water supply is critical,” Kingston said. “The Suwannee River is a national treasure. Decisions and resource management of this interstate basin depend on high-quality information. . . . This USDA project will partner with UGA to provide the network and data. And it’s one of the most sound investments we can make.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.