Human Journey

Saving a River, One Farm at a Time

David Reckford sees the beauty and the good in all things.

With the eyes of a trained landscape architect, David peers down from our small plane flying over the Flint River in southwestern Georgia and marvels at the patchwork landscape of forest, farms, and small towns beneath us.  He sees stories in this landscape.

As we fly over Glenn Cox’s corn and peanut fields, David tells us about Glenn’s passion for hunting arrowheads and mastodon teeth in the river bottom whenever he can wrest himself from the farm.

Flying over the Jones Ecological Research Center, he tells us about the day that scientist Steve Golladay was snorkeling in the river to conduct a freshwater mussel survey and came upon a water moccasin staring straight into his dive mask.

As we pass over the University of Georgia’s irrigation research park we reflect on our lunch with Calvin Perry, when he told us of his gratification in sharing his agricultural engineering expertise with farmers trying to use water more efficiently.

With deft sensitivity and countless hours of farm table conversation, David has been seeking ways to bring these people and many others together in common cause: to save the Flint River while enabling the local farm economy to prosper.

The Genesis of a Partnership

David works for The Nature Conservancy as its Flint River project director.  In keeping with the Conservancy’s mission, he hopes to save some highly endangered aquatic animals in the Flint River Basin.  He is working against heavy odds.  Those species have suffered when tributaries of the Flint River go nearly dry during droughts.  As recently as last September, thousands of mussels baked in the summer sun as the river and its tributaries shrunk to their lowest recorded levels.  According to Golladay, this coming summer could be even worse.

During the heat of summer much of the river’s water is diverted or pumped to irrigate farm fields.  In some places you can literally see the river drop when the farm sprinklers are turned on.

Many conservationists would view farmers as a serious threat to a goal of protecting endangered species.  But David sees farmers as the solution.

It appears unlikely that anybody is going to force the farmers to use less water.  At the same time, none of the farmers want to see the river go dry.  Therein, David believes, lies the seed of a solution.

Beginning in 2007, David helped bring farmers, scientists, agricultural extension agents, and government agencies together in a union of strange bedfellows known as the Flint River Basin Partnership.  Along with the Conservancy, the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service have helped coordinate and fund the partnership.  It has provided fertile ground for growing solutions to the Flint’s water problems.

Pushing the Frontiers of Irrigation Efficiency

Through this partnership, the Flint River Basin has become a productive incubator for a new technology called variable rate irrigation, or VRI.  The VRI concept is founded on the simple reality that soil conditions vary greatly across a farm field.  Some soils hold water better than others.  Additionally, farm roads, drainage ditches and even wetlands are commonly embedded within farm fields, and they certainly don’t need to be watered.  It thus makes considerable sense to try to vary the volume of water being applied across the field, but that capability wasn’t previously available when using the center-pivot sprinklers that dot the Flint landscape like alien spaceship landing pads (see photo gallery for pictures of center-pivot sprinklers).

As suggested by the name, a center-pivot sprinkler is a giant, linear, wheeled carriage of sprinklers that pivots from a center point in a long arc – most are longer than a football field — creating a circular farm field that is easily identifiable from the air (see photo gallery).  Zoom into southwest Georgia on Google Earth and you’ll see them everywhere.  More than 6,500 center pivots have been installed in the lower Flint River Basin, virtually all of them since the mid-1970s.

The VRI technology being tested by the Flint partnership enables a farmer to ‘tell’ a computer where to supply more water, less water, or no water at all.  That information is conveyed to the individual sprinkler nozzles arrayed along the center-pivot carriage.  From early trials on more than 50 VRI systems now installed in the lower Flint Basin, the partnership estimates that the systems can enable water savings averaging 17%, without reducing crop yields.

The partnership has also installed new water-saving sprinkler nozzles, remote soil moisture monitors in farm fields, and has been experimenting with alternate crop rotations, all in the name of saving water.  With more than 250,000 acres benefitting from these recent efforts, the partnership estimates that more than 15 billion gallons of water are saved in a dry year.

Let’s put that number in the context of the river.  In the years leading up to the 1970s, the river typically flowed at a rate of 2,000 to 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) during the summer.  Last summer it dropped to a record low of 656 cfs.  By saving 15 billion gallons of water during the growing season, the partnership has already restored more than 85 cfs to the river.

Getting to Full Scale

There is very strong interest in the farming community to save a lot more water.  That would go a long way in helping the Gulf sturgeon, the oval pigtoe mussel, and a world-class oyster fishery downstream in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay.

However, typical of many places in the world, the initial cost of installing water-saving measures on farms can be daunting for farmers facing thin profit margins and volatile crop markets.  While the use of technologies such as VRI clearly offers savings in electricity (less water pumped) and higher crop productivity, pay-back periods are still uncomfortably long.

David and his partners are constantly striving to drive down the costs.  In the meantime, they have tapped into federal funding through USDA to help subsidize these measures, and are hopeful for more through federal Farm Bill appropriations.

The State of Georgia has been less helpful, but a massive die-off of endangered species this summer could very well put them in hot water with the federal Endangered Species Act, stimulating greater investment in the Flint.  Alternatively, the state might better acknowledge the fact that restoring flows in the Flint, which flows south into Florida’s Apalachicola River, will play a large role in defusing the long-running water war between Georgia and Florida.

Every one of us – farmers along the Flint, oystermen in Florida, and anyone that eats corn or wears cotton — should be praying for the success of the Flint River Basin Partnership.

Nearly 3 billion people globally are experiencing severe water shortages, affecting their food security and ours, their economies and ours.  More than 90% of water consumed in those water-scarce regions goes to agriculture.

Maybe if we give David and his partnership a chance to save the river, they just might be able to show us a way to save the world.

Brian Richter has been a global leader in water science and conservation for more than 25 years. He is the Chief Scientist for the Global Water Program of The Nature Conservancy, an international conservation organization, where he promotes sustainable water use and management with governments, corporations, and local communities. He is also the President of Sustainable Waters, a global water education organization. Brian has consulted on more than 120 water projects worldwide. He serves as a water advisor to some of the world’s largest corporations, investment banks, and the United Nations, and has testified before the U.S. Congress on multiple occasions. He also teaches a course on Water Sustainability at the University of Virginia. Brian has developed numerous scientific tools and methods to support river protection and restoration efforts, including the Indicators of Hydrologic Alteration software that is being used by water managers and scientists worldwide. Brian was featured in a BBC documentary with David Attenborough on “How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?” He has published many scientific papers on the importance of ecologically sustainable water management in international science journals, and co-authored a book with Sandra Postel entitled Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature (Island Press, 2003). His new book, Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability, was published by Island Press in June 2014.

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