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North Georgia Reaches Highest Drought Level, District Declared As Natural Disaster Area

Photo by Lydia Berglar – During the wet season, Lookout Creek at Sitton’s Mill (photo taken on Nov. 7th) covers most of the large rocks, but the drought has significantly shrunk the creek, exposing rocks, creek banks, and brush.

News Editor

After several extremely dry months, North Georgia and the tri-state area have reached the D4 – Exceptional Drought level, the highest level of the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS). Even with light rain in recent days and more in the forecast, the drought has already had an impact on farmers.

On Thursday, November 9th, State Representative Mike Cameron announced that the United States Department of Agriculture declared District 1 a primary natural disaster area due to the drought. His office published the following press release:

“Four counties, including Walker and Dade, have sustained eight or more weeks of severe, extreme or exceptional drought conditions, which allows USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) to extend essential emergency credit to Georgia farmers impacted by these weather events.

“‘I would like to thank the USDA for recognizing this natural disaster and providing resources to affected Georgia farmers and producers in our area,’ said Rep. Cameron. ‘I encourage farmers in House District 1 who have been impacted by these conditions to apply for USDA FSA loans. I want my constituents to be informed of the natural disaster declaration by the USDA and to know there is help available to them in this tough time.’

“Loans from USDA FSA can be used to meet various recovery requirements, including replacing essential items such as farm equipment or livestock, reorganizing a farming operation or refinancing specific loans. FSA will review all loans based on the extent of losses, security available and repayment ability. Georgia farmers and producers in Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties can apply by June 30, 2024. Farmers and producers in Floyd, Gordon and Whitfield counties are also eligible to apply. To access more USDA resources, please go to where you can view the Disaster Assistance Discovery Tool, Disaster Assistance-at-a-Glance fact sheet and Loan Assistance Tool to help you determine program or loan options. To file a Notice of Loss or to ask questions about available programs, please contact your local USDA Service Center.”

Stephen Bontekoe (executive director of Limestone Valley Resource Conservation and Development Council) further explained the active funding for drought relief for Dade County farmers. He said, “Producers may be eligible for the Livestock Forage Program. Call our local FSA at 706-638-1558 for more information.”

An FSA representative will be at Bontekoe’s office in the Dade County Administrative building from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on November 21st and 28th.

Local 3 News interviewed Jeremy Dyer of Dyer Livestock about how the drought is affecting his cattle. Dyer explained that the drought is preventing them from planting ryegrass, a key part of their cattle’s diet.

Cameron told the Sentinel that he’s been speaking with ranchers throughout the district. A group from Walker County told him that they normally get three cuts of hay each year, but this year, they were only able to cut twice. This group said they also normally plant around this time but have had to delay due to the drought, so they are concerned about running short again next year.

County Executive Ted Rumley offered further information regarding Lookout Creek, plans for the reservoir, and the national issue of water security.

Photo by Lydia Berglar – County Executive Ted Rumley said, “There are rocks in Lookout Creek now showing that I’ve never seen in my life.” Pictured here: Lookout Creek at the Rumley’s Rising Fawn property on Nov. 8th.

Lookout Creek, which runs north out of Alabama, is Dade County’s water source. Rumley added, “The water company has two deep wells for emergencies, but you can’t rely on those. The creek is our primary water source.”

Rumley said, “Our water comes from just a couple miles across the state line. There’s a big artesian well at the head of Lookout Creek. I was down there about a month ago, and it’s not even half of what it used to be ten years ago. Same thing with the water coming north. The spring on my farm used to be a major contributor to the creek, but now it’s just a trickle.”

Rumley noted development in Alabama that is drawing water from the creek. “There are some major poultry houses across the state line in Alabama. They’re about a year old. From what I understand, they’re pulling their water from the creek. There’s nothing we can do about it; the creek runs through their farm, and we’re downstream from it.”

He noted that further development across the state line, whether it be chicken houses or apartment complexes, is out of the control of Dade County, but it would impact the creek levels.

The Sentinel asked, “If Dade County continues to grow, both residential and industrial, are we going to run into problems sooner rather than later?”

Rumley responded, “The more growth and the more infrastructure you have, the more water you gotta have. But the water company, they do a good job. They know what they can pull and what they can’t pull. The thing they can’t control is Mother Nature.”

The wildfires that the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) has been fighting have not impacted the creek levels because the fires are not near the creek. Rumley said, “GFC is pulling from whatever source they can get to, like ponds. Up on the north end, I’m sure they’re pulling out of Nickajack. That’s another thing that’ll be good from the reservoir – it’ll give them a dipping place with millions of gallons. It’s hard in the creek to have a place where they can get the water.”

Regarding the reservoir, Rumley reported that the engineers are still in the middle of the two-year process of permitting. “When they get all that done, then, where’s the money coming from to build it? There’s a lot to building a reservoir, but it’s a very popular topic in governments now, especially in the southern United States where we’ve had all the droughts.”

He said that there is state and federal funding for reservoirs that the county will pursue, reporting that the Georgia reservoir fund currently has about $20 million in it.

Currently, the county does not know how much the project will cost. Rumley anticipates that local funds will be used for the recreational area surrounding the reservoir.

The reservoir will fill up during the wet season, when the creek is high. Rumley said, “We’re not daming the creek. There’ll be a levee there, and there’ll be an entrance on the upper side where you can open it and control water coming into it. That way, you won’t deprive anything downstream. We’ll be able to keep it at one level until we have a drought or an emergency.”

While the reservoir will be helpful in situations such as the current drought, Rumley said it’s not a perfect solution to the water security issue. “It’s not going to fix the problem. We’d use the reservoir to get by until we could do something or until it rained enough and the creek came back up. We do have a tap up at the Tennessee line, but it would take a year or so to get it to where you could backflow from Tennessee American Water.”

Rumley noted that Fort Payne, Ala. built a reservoir after a scare a number of years ago. “It’s working real well. It was a lifesaver for them, and LaFayette did the same thing.”

Connected to the issue of water security, the Sentinel cited the Law of Conservation of Mass (matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, they can only change forms), asking why we have a water shortage when all the water that has ever existed in the word still exists in some form. In simple terms, Rumley explained that water is being moved out of certain communities to other communities.

For example, Rumley noted that water is packaged in southern states and shipped to northern states such as New York faster than it can return to southern water sources.

Additionally, some areas outgrow their natural resources, which is part of the issue Atlanta has run into. Currently, Lake Lanier (the reservoir to the northwest of Atlanta) is at its lowest level in six years.

Rumley said, “Atlanta’s running out of water, no doubt. When they had a drought 15 or 20 years ago, it was a wake-up call. But then it started raining, politics changed, and they forgot about it. We’re disturbing Mother Nature’s natural recycling process. We have to figure out how to make it work. It’s trial and error. There’s research being funded about this, but there’s a lot of backlash from people making the money on things like bottled water.”

In relation to Atlanta’s water needs, Georgia looked at building a pipeline from Nickajack to Atlanta, but the land/water dispute between Georgia and Tennessee at the 53rd parallel came into play.

Rumley explained, “Georgia’s supposed to be out in that channel, and we’re supposed to have access to the Tennessee River. We have a right to it, because we put more back into the river than the 1.5 billion gallons a day that Atlanta would pull out. You’ve got the Ocoee River that originates in Blue Ridge, Ga. but ends up back in the Tennessee River. Georgia is putting probably over three or four billion gallons a day back in.”

The Sentinel asked if Rumley anticipates any sort of unintended consequences from building the reservoir. He responded, “We did a preliminary study on the property before we bought it. Everyone we’ve had look at it has said that the property is ideal. Back in the 1960s, the water company was advised by different groups to buy the property.”

Rumley noted that the Sells Lane property is ideal because of its proximity to the water treatment plant. “Some reservoirs are miles and miles from their treatment center.”

Rumley concluded, “There are rocks in Lookout Creek now showing that I’ve never seen in my life. It’s a scary thing, if you’re not prepared, and you don’t get prepared overnight. You don’t miss something until you don’t have it.”

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