Part 2: On the Road—and the River—with the Ecological Problem Solving Class

Cheryth Youngmann

Contact: [email protected]

Agriculture, economics and aquariums—pieces of the puzzle

To travel through southwestern Georgia is to travel through the state’s agricultural hub. As soon as the growing season begins, center pivot irrigation systems roll methodically through sprawling fields, looking like the world’s largest sprinklers. Farming is a physical presence there. By the time the Ecological Problem Solving class arrived in Albany, Georgia last spring, local sweet corn was in full production.

No course built around water sharing and water policy would be complete without an agricultural component—and between visits to Albany State University’s Water Planning and Policy Center and UGA’s Stripling Irrigation Research Park, students learned about the relationship between farming and water.

A man in a button down shirt leads a croup of students toward a center pivot irrigation machine. The horizontal image is bisected by the horizon, with blue sky on top and green fields below.
Students head toward a center pivot at the UGA Stripling Research Park.

Few people are as qualified to speak to the junction of agriculture and water legislation in Georgia as Mark Masters, a researcher, farmer and the director of the Policy Center.

He spoke to the center’s purpose when he presented for the class on the morning of May 31.

“We have all this information about water. We have all these places producing what’s known as hard science about water,” he explained. “So what? What does that mean for policymakers? What does that mean for stakeholders and decision makers? How do we go about taking what we are learning about water and put it into practice? That’s why we were formed. I tell people we’re a think tank.”

And that think tank has implemented meaningful change. Owing to a water metering system pushed by the Policy Center, Georgia deals in in actual numbers when it comes to water use, not models. Georgia’s General Assembly passed the law requiring the system in 2004.

Through a network of meters placed on all agricultural pumps, researchers and lawmakers know, almost to the gallon, where every agricultural water withdrawal comes from and where it goes. Because Georgia’s irrigation permits are based on acreage irrigated, not volume, it’s especially important to precisely measure the state’s agricultural water needs.

Masters described another big policy win. Researchers wanted to know if, during dry seasons, they could pay farmers not to irrigate fields, to better conserve water. It turns out the answer is yes, according to data gathered with the participation of over half of the 150 irrigators in the Ichauway Basin. Farmers were open to a range of bidding systems that might, in drought years, prevent financial disaster for farmers and ecological disaster for aquifers.

But surveys and policies can be hard to conceptualize.

A visit to the UGA’s Stripling Irrigation Research Park demonstrated what Masters had explained to the class.

Calvin Perry, a public service assistant with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, along with Charles Stripling, son of the property’s original land owner, led students on a tour of the grounds—or expanses of farmland, really.

A researcher discusses the parts of a pump used for agricultural water withdrawals.

“We’re going to talk about ag water use and how we irrigate crops—but more importantly, how we use smart irrigation as we irrigate crops today,” said Perry. “[Masters] can tell you, but we’re going to show you.”

And he made good on the promise. Perry and fellow researchers performed a live demonstration of efficient irrigation, turning on a center pivot machine.

He explained that center pivot systems—and even the clunkier drag hose systems—play a crucial role in precision agriculture. They’re fitted with a GPS tracker, and connected to a Vegetation Resources Inventory Map, allowing the pivot to turn on and off at strategic times based on the water needs of a particular section of field. The device sprays with relatively light pressure close to the crop, to reduce water loss through wind. “Ninety percent of a gallon gets to the field,” Perry explained.

Calvin Perry shows students side-by-side examples of irrigated and non-irrigated corn

And the pivots are widely adopted. “About ninety-three percent of irrigated acres down here are using very efficient sprinklers.”

At Perry’s encouragement, students used the machine as exactly that—a sprinkler—when several ran through its spray during the demonstration.

He showed students side by side examples of irrigated and non-irrigated corn, and his assistants showed them live examples of agricultural pumps and the required meter.

Masters and Perry agreed: Knowing when to irrigate is critical for both best water use practices and high crop yields. And they were both quick to point out that irrigation is important not only during seasons of drought, but also in normal rainfall years. The timing of rain doesn’t always coincide with the most critical point in a crop’s growth cycle.

“Irrigated agriculture consistently produces more crops of higher quality, and we generally have the water to do it. In southwest Georgia, somewhere between six and seven billion of farm gate value is generated by the presence of irrigation,” Masters had pointed out earlier that day. “That’s a big deal in a relatively poor part of the state.”

The Flint RiverQuarium

Heads swimming with agriculture research and policy, the students pivoted to a recreational component of the course, making a stop at the Flint RiverQuarium to round out the day.

Home to dozens of species actually found in the Flint River basin, the Flint RiverQuarium was founded on the principle that an informed public becomes motivated to conserve natural systems.

Turtles swim in their tank.

After visiting with the hundreds of critters housed at the facility, Peter Hazelton, Assistant Professor in Aquatic Ecosystem Health at the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, spoke to students about his research on the impact of mussel eggs on fish health and respiration.

Although the tour was guided, class members were able to linger as their interests dictated. That self-paced rate offered students time to reflect on the day.

“It’s been cool to finally see the agricultural piece,” said Pearce Buxton. At an earlier stop in the course, when the class observed the Army Corps of Engineers release the floodgates at Lake Seminole, she’d been especially impressed by the sheer power of hydroelectric dams. But Buxton was conscious that what they’d learned at the Water Policy and Stripling centers was an integral piece of the course.

Mckenzie Leatherwood saw the visit to the aquarium as an inspiration for career plans beyond her undergraduate experience at Odum.

“Getting to go and meet these stakeholders, you get to see how excited they are to share their knowledge with you. Even here at the aquarium, our guide—he knows so much, and he wants to share it. I love that part,” she shared. “Because knowing that there are people who care so much is inspiring to someone who is about to leave college and wants to get a job and doesn’t know if they can make an impact.”

Read the first post in this series on the Field Program in Ecological Problem Solving here. The final story, about students’ educational paddling excursion with the Flint Riverkeeper, can be read here