Nathan Deal: Capping water would be ‘disaster’ for South Georgia farmers

Gov. Nathan Deal at a state Capitol press conference in January. Hyosub Shin,

Gov. Nathan Deal at a state Capitol press conference in January. Hyosub Shin,

Gov. Nathan Deal warned that Florida’s attempt to cap Georgia’s water use and set a strict limit of water flowing south across the state line could have dire consequences for the state’s agricultural industry.

In an interview Tuesday as the state’s lengthy battle with Florida over regional water rights neared a critical juncture, Deal said limits on water use could be a “disaster for agriculture” that could force farmers to change the types of crops by restricting irrigation.

“Farmers are allowed to make those calls on their own, based on market prices for the commodities they produce. They should not have an artificial process to grow their crops,” Deal said. “It’s pretty far-reaching.”

More: Georgia-Florida water war trial could end this week

The governor said Florida was forced to target Georgia’s agriculture industry in part because of successful water conservation efforts in metro Atlanta. He pointed to data provided by his office that show metro Atlanta is withdrawing 10 percent less water over the past decade despite growing by more than 1 million people.

“We feel we have a very strong case,” he said, adding: “Hopefully, the special master will give due attention to the fact that we’ve not just ignored the issue. We’ve taken proactive steps.”

They were the most extensive public comments Deal has made about the water wars trial in more than a year. The “special master” overseeing the case encouraged Deal and other state leaders in April 2015 to stay mum about the proceedings, but Deal said he was free to discuss the details that were aired in trial this month.

Georgia is set to wrap up its case by Friday, leaving the special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to try to resolve the 27-year-old legal dispute between the two neighbors. Deal has held several meetings with the governors of Alabama and Florida over the past two years, though efforts to strike a compromise have so far been fruitless.

Florida accuses Georgia of hoarding water needed to sustain the Apalachicola Bay oyster industry, while Georgia claims prudent stewardship of the Chattahoochee River and counters that Florida is to blame for its ecological problems.

Georgia is likely to highlight its conservation efforts in the closing days of the trial.

The data provided by Deal’s office show that more than 110,000 toilets have been retrofitted to save more than 900 million gallons a year. Deal’s office also said that leak detection programs, a new pricing system for water use and more aggressive monitoring of water usage have helped reduce per capita water consumption by about 30 percent over the past decade.

In the interview, Deal said he wanted to make sure South Georgia farmers and other leaders were aware of the “possible serious consequences” if Florida succeeds in capping agriculture water use.

“I don’t know that it’s gone under their radar, but it hasn’t gone under mine,” he said. “We’ve spent $24 million-plus in legal expenses (this year) to fight this issue and this case. That’s a significant investment in taxpayer money. And we’ve done so because I realize the significant consequences that could come from this.”

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