Southwest Georgia is one of the most productive agricultural regions in Dixie, but you wouldn't know it from the soil under the corn, peanuts and cotton. It can be sandy, it can be pebbly, and it doesn't hold water very well.
That begins to explain why irrigation is so vital around here — and why the mere suggestion that some of the region's water might be taken away fills folks with fear and resentment.
With a historic drought gripping the Southeast, Georgia farmers are increasingly worried that their needs will be sacrificed to those of Atlanta — a city of runaway growth and seemingly unquenchable thirst — or water-guzzling Florida.
"Atlanta needs to take a hard look at what's happening in the metro area," said Bubba Johnson, a 68-year-old farmer who grows cotton and corn on a 500-acre plot. "There's going to be a heck of a battle if they try to come down here to get the water."
The drought has forced much of the state to enact unprecedented watering restrictions, and legislative leaders want to build more state reservoirs. Some — including Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin — have also floated the idea of transferring water to Atlanta from other places via pipeline.
Franklin has not specifically mentioned pumping water out of southwest Georgia's Flint River or its tributaries, but the mere possibility has stoked the long-standing tension between the big city and the countryside.
"I don't want to throw a brick at Atlanta. But I feel like we're getting squeezed between entities as everyone competes for water," said Glenn Cox, a farmer in Camilla. "We just don't have enough clout. There are more trees in this plot of land than there are people in this county."
Crops or lawns?
In a recent editorial, Valdosta Daily Times lashed out at Atlanta, accusing it of hogging water while farmers watch their crops burn in the fields.
Atlanta politicians, the newspaper said, "can't bring themselves to tell their greedy constituents complaining about the low flows in their toilets this week that perhaps if they didn't have six bathrooms, it might ease the situation a bit. That watering your lawn isn't as important as watering crops. Or that their greedy overbuilding has taxed their supplies of natural resources beyond their capabilities."
Between 1990 and 2000, Atlanta added more than 1 million people and its water use climbed 30 percent to about 420 million gallons a day. Now metropolitan Atlanta boasts roughly 5 million people and projects more than 2 million more by 2030, when water could climb past 700 million gallons a day.
In rural southwest Georgia, the biggest city, Albany, has about 160,000 people in the metro area. The region helps make Georgia the No. 1 peanut state.
Farmers have tilled the fields here for generations, but water use spiked in the 1970s with the rise of new irrigation technologies such as center pivots and underwater pumps. The farmers now rely on thousands and thousands of wells that tap into a huge aquifer fed by the streams that crisscross the region.
Eyes on neighbors, next year
The farmers have more to fear than just Atlanta. They are also watching with dismay as the Army Corps of Engineers sends water downstream to Florida and Alabama to run power plants and sustain federally protected mussels.
Johnson, president of the Mitchell County Farm Bureau, is pushing his neighbors and lawmakers to fight for local control of water.
"Before any water is transferred out, you have to make sure needs here are taken care of," he said.
Cox, who lives on a serene plot of land along the Flint River, grows sweet corn, field corn and peanuts. This year's harvest came out fine — peanuts can be surprisingly resilient — but he is already worried about next year's.
"I'm just hoping we won't get cut off. This is our livelihood. I'm a fifth-generation farmer. If I can't water, I won't be able to pass this land on to my 16-year-old daughter," he said.