While news reports routinely tell of water shortages in other parts of the country, Delta growers traditionally have considered themselves immune from such problems. But like other natural resources, the seemingly endless supply of readily available water in the region is not unlimited.
Officials with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality warn that a day of reckoning could come sooner than most people think if they don't recognize the magnitude of the problem.
Water quantity is an “important, complex issue,” said Charles Chisolm, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, in a speech at the Nov. 12 Delta Council mid-year board of directors meeting in Greenville, Miss. Still, he believes the Delta can enjoy a plentiful water supply for years to come if people in the region first recognize that a problem exists.
“Every aspect of water also has an environmental aspect,” said Chisolm, adding that water quantity now has joined water quality and air quality as priority environmental issues in the Delta.
“We're making progress in a sensible and smart way. Water quantity has an environmental component and an economic development component. We must redirect the ship without sinking it. We must handle this issue in a way that people 100 years from now will look back and see that what we did was smart for the residents of Mississippi,” said Chisolm.
Groundwater aquifers are measured semi-annually in the Delta, said Gaylon McGregor, engineer with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, and water levels have not changed significantly since 1980 for the majority of the region.
However, there has been a significant decline in water levels in the Sunflower-Leflore County area around the Sunflower River, he adds. McGregor emphasizes that it is a “Delta-wide problem.”
“The trend is downward, and some wells must be reconfigured and moved down to a lower elevation. Current water levels in wells in the upper reaches are at the bed of the river. But in the problem area, water levels are significantly below the river bed,” said the engineer.
The Department of Environmental Quality is working with NRCS, the Delta Council, YMD, row-crop farmers and catfish producers to help insure a plentiful water supply in the region, Department officials say.
Available options include: augmenting flow in Delta streams; voluntary pumping reduction in critical areas of the aquifer; widespread adoption of water conservation practices; and improvements in conjunctive use. “All of us are going to be required to make the best use of the water available to us,” said McGregor.
Also under consideration are permitting practices that would promote an increased use of surface water with a corresponding decrease in pumping, he said. These practices could include requiring users to demonstrate that they can't use surface water, completing a checklist of conservation practices in use on site, and requiring that a minimum number of conservation practices be in place.
“These are possibilities,” said McGregor. “They're not out there yet, but they are under consideration.”
Efforts also are being made to expand the EQIP program to encourage an increased use of surface water.
A second phase of the Department of Environmental Quality's action plan will involve securing commitments for an increased use of available surface water for irrigating crops and corresponding voluntary reductions in groundwater use.
The recharge water problem is concentrated in the center of the Delta, said McGregor, and the “status quo” is not acceptable. The Department of Environmental Quality is a regulatory agency, he said, and if voluntary commitments can't be achieved, regulations will be the next step. These regulations could include a decrease in the number of permits issued.
“We may have to consider long-term restrictions on water use if we can't turn this around,” said McGregor. In the meantime, the hope is that everyone working together can help solve the problem.