Habitat Conservation Plan and Agricultural Water Use in Southwest Georgia

The lower Flint River Basin is the heart of Georgia agriculture. The basin is also home to four species of endangered mussels and one threatened mussel, and, as of June 20, 2023, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of listing another mussel in the basin as endangered. Mussels are important for people and ecosystems because they are natural filters, keeping rivers and streams clean and improving habitat for fish and other animals. They are also important food sources for many animals. Given the importance of the lower Flint River Basin, protecting the water resource for existing and future users is critical, particularly during drought. A Habitat Conservation Plan is a tool that can help us protect the water resource for all its users.

What is a Habitat Conservation Plan?

A Habitat Conservation Plan is a “planning document designed to accommodate economic development to the extent possible by authorizing the limited and unintentional take of listed species when it occurs incidental to otherwise lawful activities.” Habitat Conservation Plans must describe the impact to the endangered species and how the impact will be monitored, minimized, and mitigated. The plans must also include an analysis of alternatives and any additional measures required by the Fish and Wildlife Service. These plans become part of an Incidental Take Permit under the Endangered Species Act.

The State of Georgia, with support from the Georgia Water Planning and Policy Center, plans to develop a Habitat Conservation Plan and apply for an Incidental Take Permit for agricultural water use in the lower Flint River Basin. This is not the first time that Georgia has considered a Habitat Conservation Plan. The Department of Natural Resources – Wildlife Resources Division developed a Habitat Conservation Plan for red-cockaded woodpeckers in 1999, and the Fish and Wildlife Service approved it, with an Incidental Take Permit and Enhancement of Survival Permit issued in 2000.

I’m a farmer in the lower Flint, how will a Habitat Conservation Plan help me?

Habitat Conservation Plans offer many benefits. It provides predictability and water security. Farmers in the basin will have assurances that they can use water for irrigation without the threat of Endangered Species Act violations, fines, or litigation. The plan also acts like an insurance policy; if something unexpected happens, the Habitat Conservation Plan provides protections. With an Incidental Take Permit and Habitat Conservation Plan, if unforeseen circumstances arise, the FWS will not require additional restrictions on the use of the water beyond what is agreed to in the Habitat Conservation Plan without the consent of the State.

What will be in this Habitat Conservation Plan?

The Habitat Conservation Plan will be based on technical hydrologic and biological information and include both regulatory and voluntary actions that will protect surface water flows and water quality in the lower Flint River Basin. While the list of actions is still under development, some potential actions include:

Voluntary irrigation suspension auctions, such as those described in the Flint River Drought Protection Act, where farmers can choose compensation in exchange for temporary suspension of irrigation on certain acres in times of drought.

Voluntary participation in a source-switching program, in which farmers elect to use deep aquifer wells for use during times of drought instead of surface water from the Flint River and its tributaries. The wells will draw on the Claiborne and Cretaceous aquifers. Cost-sharing is available for these wells from the GA-FIT Drought SWAP program.

Increased adoption of enhanced water conservation practices, including sensor-based soil moisture monitoring and irrigation scheduling.

Conservation easements, through which farmers choose to put previously irrigated acres into conservation for specific time periods.

Targeted flow augmentation projects, placed tactically to support specific mussel populations in specific locations and provide refuge to mussels in times of drought.

New and expanded water use where capacity exists, such as new permitting programs (for example, frost protection permitting), which are protective of the water resources, particularly in times of drought.

The Habitat Conservation Plan and the 2012 Suspension

In 2012, then EPD Director Judson H. Turner announced the suspension of consideration of applications for agricultural water withdrawal permits from surface water and the Floridan Aquifer in portions of southwest Georgia, due to concerns about low flows during drought. The suspension was a blunt drought management tool intended to protect existing users and the water resource while EPD determined whether and how additional water capacity existed in the area. The announcement directed EPD to evaluate the suspension annually, with future modifications possible depending on the condition of the water resource.  Download this pdf file. A 2023 memorandum summarizes EPD’s evaluation of the 2012 suspension and provides a recommendation that includes the use of a Habitat Conservation Plan.

The Habitat Conservation Plan provides a comprehensive way of revising the suspension and developing a more informed and defensible water management approach, particularly for drought. The development of a Habitat Conservation Plan includes the collection of new biological data and the running of new hydrological models. These technical activities will provide important information about capacity; where capacity exists, new and expanded permits could be considered.

Farmers in the area have experienced five different permitting regimes in the last 40 years. Farmers and the State would benefit from the development of a comprehensive permitting approach that incorporates stakeholder feedback. The development of a Habitat Conservation Plan is an appropriate path to realizing a comprehensive permitting approach because Habitat Conservation Plan development will involve a lot of engagement and discussion with affected farmers and other stakeholders. These conversations will be important for making an informed, practical water management program that can provide farmers with regulatory certainty and protect the water resource.

How can I get involved with the Habitat Conservation Plan?

We want you to be involved. The development of a Habitat Conservation Plan was included as one of the two primary tasks of the $49.8 million ARPA grant awarded to the Albany State University Georgia Water Planning and Policy Center and EPD. The Georgia Water Planning and Policy Center is leading the development of the plan and will be guided by a Project Advisory Board that meets quarterly. The board includes many members from the agricultural sector as well as other water-related interests in the region. The Advisory Board’s primary focus is to provide feedback on the development of the plan. Information about these meetings is available on the GA-FIT website and on EPD’s website.

The next Project Advisory Board meeting will be held virtually on April 3, 2024, from 10 AM to 12 PM.  For more information, including information on how to join the meeting, please call (229-430-2900) or email ([email protected]).

EPD is the lead on any regulatory component of the Habitat Conservation Plan. If there are any recommended changes to EPD rules or permits through the development of the plan, EPD will host additional stakeholder meetings to ask for feedback on the proposed changes. Information about those meetings will also be available on the EPD website.