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Georgia's Flint River

Conserving Water for People and Wildlife

New ideas are helping farmers save billions of gallons of water

By The Numbers

  • The Flint River Basin Partnership was formed in 2004.
  • Since then, we’ve worked with more than 1,000 farmers.
  • Water conservation practices have been implemented on 250,000 acres of irrigated land.
  • 100,000 water-spraying nozzles have been replaced with more efficient models.
  • In a dry year, all of the practices collectively conserve up to 15 billion gallons of water.

Read More About the Flint River
A Scientific American magazine blogger wrote about the technology that is powering this innovative partnership.

Brian Richter, The Nature Conservancy’s director of freshwater strategies, visited the Flint River and blogged about it for National Geographic.

The next time you open a can of nuts or put on a cotton t–shirt, thank the Flint River in southwest Georgia. More peanuts and pecans are grown in this part of Georgia than anywhere else in the United States, and the production of cotton and sweet corn isn’t far behind. All told, the area produces $2 billion in farm–based revenue annually.

It takes a lot of water to grow those crops. Unfortunately, historic droughts, coupled with intense water use, have resulted in low flows in the lower Flint River system, threatening the future of diverse aquatic life and the local agricultural economy.

What’s At Risk in the Lower Flint?
The Flint River is first visible at the mouth of a concrete culvert just south of Atlanta’s vast international airport. Flowing southwest, the river winds through rural land and sparsely populated communities. Four federally–protected freshwater mussel species, and fish like the endangered Alabama shad and Shoal bass, a favorite of fishermen, inhabit the river.

“The Flint is an incredibly important river when it comes to species diversity, and these species need the waters of the Flint to be productive and healthy,” said David Reckford, the Conservancy’s Flint River Basin project director. “The same goes for farmers; they need water to grow the crops that feed and clothe our world, as well as their own families. So both people and nature benefit when we protect the waters of the Flint.’'

Farmers Today
Close your eyes, and consider the word farmer. What do you see? An older fellow in overalls sitting on a tractor? It’s time to update that mental picture. Today’s farmers are sophisticated business people, working hard to produce food and fiber to meet the needs of a growing world.

Because agriculture in the Lower Flint River Basin uses a lot of water, partnering with farmers is critical to water conservation efforts. For more than a decade, The Nature Conservancy has collaborated with local farmers, university researchers and conservation agencies to build a powerful partnership. The goal: move innovative water conservation practices from the research laboratory to the working farm.

“We work with farmers to improve the efficiency of irrigation equipment and introduce conservation practices that can be realistically implemented, considering factors like cost and ease of use,” said David.

These new irrigation and farming practices fall into three categories.

Mechanical Retrofits
Irrigation systems are outfitted with new nozzles that spray water in rain–like droplets closer to the ground and at a lower pressure so that less is lost to evaporation and wind drift. High–powered “endguns” that spray water on the edges of a field are fitted with controls that shut them off over non–planted areas like roads.

Technological Innovation
Fields often contain areas that can’t grow crops – like rock outcroppings or wetlands. But most irrigation systems spray water over the entire field, regardless. Variable rate irrigation allows a farmer to refine irrigation patterns through GPS–based software, removing non–crop areas from irrigation. In addition, data such as temperature and soil moisture is transmitted from sensors in the field to the Internet. Farmers can access this information from any computer or PDA and make changes to their irrigation plans in real-time, saving water and alleviating time-consuming travel to the field.

Farming Methods
What crop is planted and planting cycles can have a substantial impact on water use. For example, leaving plant residue in the field can improve root structure and water–holding capacity. Also, farmers often rotate what they grow in a field year after year to preserve soil health. Research is now showing that adding specific plants like warm season perennial grasses to the rotation improves the soil over time. Fields can be more productive and crops require less water.

The unique partnership between local farmers, The Nature Conservancy, Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District, and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service shows that there is truly strength in numbers. The Partnership has secured substantial funding to implement these strategies on more than 250,000 acres of crop land. In combination, these practices are yielding almost unbelievable results, reducing annual water use in a dry year by an estimated 15 billion gallons of water.

While these savings help farmers reduce their irrigation costs, the ultimate goal for The Nature Conservancy is to improve the outlook for the rare species that rely on the waters of the Flint. “Now that we have these practices in place at a meaningful scale on working farms,” David said, “we are beginning to investigate exactly how these changes are affecting the river and the wildlife that call the Lower Flint River Basin home.”

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