THOMASVILLE – Water covers nearly three-fourths of the world’s surface. When it comes to drinking water, the vast majority of South Georgia taps into a vast pool hundreds of feet below the surface.
For much of South Georgia, including communities in the SunLight Project coverage area of Moultrie, Thomasville, Tifton and Valdosta, that supply comes from the Floridan aquifer, an underground reservoir covering more than 100,000 square miles throughout the Southeast.
The Floridan aquifer has qualities that make it unique, according to a Georgia Environmental Protection Division official.
"It's an extremely productive aquifer," said Cliff Lewis, Tifton-based EPD agricultural program director.
The aquifer, which serves all of Florida, a large portion of Georgia and parts of Alabama and South Carolina, refills quickly with rainfall, Lewis said, but it does experience times when rainfall is not in the needed amount or frequency — or both.
"As soon as the rain comes, that aquifer bounces back real quick,” he said.
Much of the water taken from the aquifer by municipalities — and by some industries — is released as clean surface water that soaks into the ground and eventually into the aquifer.
Most of southwest Georgia is not expected to grow in population. In fact, population projections from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget call for the numbers in each of Colquitt, Thomas and Tift counties to decline through 2062. Among other counties in the SunLight Project area, both Lowndes, at 8.7 percent, and Whitfield, at 6.5 percent, are expected to grow.
Yet the demand for water will continue.
So just how much water is being used by people and industries, and what is being done to preserve a ready supply of fresh drinking water for residents and a supply of water needed for industries?
Turning on the tap
The City of Thomasville has about 10,800 water customers who consume an average 1.2 million gallons annually. The city's water system is capable of producing more than 16 million gallons per day.
The city, however, is only permitted for 8 million gallons per day. Its daily average usage is 4 million to 4.5 million gallons, said Chris White, Thomasville utilities superintendent.
Colquitt has six municipalities and each provides water service to its residents. Of the six, Moultrie is by far the largest, and the city has two water systems. One covers the Sunbelt Ag Expo and an industrial park. The other is the primary source for the rest of the city.
Moultrie has eight deep wells pulling water from the Floridan aquifer from more than 450 feet below. The only treatment used for that water is an injection of chlorine for disinfection purposes, said Elvira Gibson, city utilities director.
Moultrie can pump 8,100 gallons of water per minute and has storage capacity of 1.65 million gallons in four elevated tanks. Average daily consumption, in 2018, was approximately 2.6 million gallons per day.
Officials say the water available is plentiful enough to handle current and future needs.
“As you can see, Moultrie is blessed with an abundant water supply and great pumping capacity,” Gibson said. “Growth in Moultrie would pose no problem to our system as all of our wells are adequately sized for redundancy and our water mains in town are interconnected to supply any water tower.”
A number of private water systems are used throughout the county. Plus, other county residents rely on private wells.
There are 57 public drinking water systems in Colquitt, and the county has issued 762 well permits, said Lawanda B. Lovett, Colquitt County Health Department environmental health specialist.
In 2018, Tifton and Tift County sold more than 1.34 billion gallons of water. The city continues to upgrade its distribution system when possible, and a large meter replacement project is expected to help the city get a more accurate measure of water used by its larger customers.
While meters become less accurate over time, Tifton, through its code enforcement, is making all new plumbing fixtures to be low flow and high efficiency.
Water usage in Valdosta runs a gamut of 8.5 million gallons per day in the fall and winter to 10.5 million gallons per day in the spring and summer, said Ashlyn Becton, public information officer for the City of Valdosta.
The city has not had a significant population increase for the last 10 years, less than one-half of 1 percent from 2009-19.
“Often the narrative is the utility controls consumption. This is not the case,” Becton said. “Consumers control consumption. The utility ensures potable water is available, and educates consumers on beneficial uses. On average, the utility will provide educational materials and guided tours to over a thousand citizens in our community annually.”
Valdosta’s seven wells are drilled into the upper Floridan aquifer, 400 feet from the surface. In Valdosta, the top of the aquifer lies approximately 200 feet below ground surface and the city's wells are drilled an additional 200 feet into the limestone.
Dalton relies on a different source for its water.
Water consumption in 2018 was fairly normal, said Mark Buckner, Dalton Utilities chief of watershed operations and economic development.
Dalton Utilities draws its water from Mill Creek, Coahuila Creek, Conasauga River and a small amount from a natural spring at its Freeman Springs water facility.
The Eastside Utility District, which gets its water from the Tennessee River, supplies a small portion of DU’s water distribution system in extreme northern Whitfield County.
DU is permitted to treat 65.5 million gallons per day and its average daily usage in 2018 was 27.2 million gallons per day.
As part of DU’s watershed protection plan, local rivers and streams are sampled regularly for water quality and that data is submitted to the Georgia EPD.
Development in any form can pose a risk to public water supply by its impact to water quality in nearby streams, Buckner said.
“As the landscape changes from undeveloped raw land to land with buildings and parking lots, etc., this can increase the amount of pollution running off the property and can alter the velocity of runoff,” he said.
That, Buckner added, can lead to more land erosion. New development rules require on-site stormwater detention that mimics the runoff before development takes place. The water quality rules also require devices that screen out potential pollutants.
“We believe that overall development in Whitfield County will continue to look for ways to create the least possible environmental impact,” Buckner said. “This type of low-impact development could manifest itself through more greenscapes, rain gardens and other alternatives that are designed to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff from developed property.”
The aquifer in the area of Valdosta and Lowndes County is known as a karst aquifer, Becton said.
This is an aquifer that has cracks, underground solution channels and caverns. These cracks can provide a route to allow contaminants to enter the aquifer, move about in the aquifer and alter the water supply and can cause special challenges for the city water system.
Rainfall in middle Georgia helps recharge the Floridan aquifer. But rainfall today will take several years to get to the aquifer and eventually to the people and businesses using it.
In North Florida, the aquifer has been impacted significantly by massive over pumping in South Georgia, said Brett Cyphers, Northwest Florida Water Management District executive director.
“There is often a relationship between aquifer levels and surface water bodies like rivers, and in North Florida, the impacts of over pumping are felt most detrimentally in the Apalachicola-Flint-Chattahoochee basin,” he said.
Sydni Barwick, Thomas County extension service agent, said Floridan aquifer water levels are reported to be relatively close to the surface. Aquifer levels are highest near the coast.
Population growth poses no risk to drinkable water for the Thomasville/Thomas County area of South Georgia, White said.
”We have access to the one of the cleanest, most plentiful water supplies on earth," he said.
But it’s not just farmers and homeowners who need water.
When industrial prospects look at Thomasville and Thomas County, they ask more about water capacity than about water price, said Shelley Zorn, Thomasville Payroll Development Authority executive director.
“Prices in Thomasville are competitive, but usually prospects are most impressed that the city has an abundance of water capacity,” she said. “When we tell a prospect we are sitting on the Floridan aquifer, they are delighted.”
With regards to conservation, Dalton is unique because its water consumption has decreased dramatically during the last 20 years, Buckner said. The decrease is attributable largely to changes in the local floor covering industry’s manufacturing processes.
“This reduction has again put Dalton in the position of having an excess amount of treatment capacity to allow for significant growth of water-intensive manufacturing or other local development,” Buckner said.
Protection and conservation of water will always be an important issue for Dalton Utilities, Buckner added.
“In terms of protecting our water sources that supply our drinking water, there is no higher priority for DU,” he said.
As an example, Buckner pointed out, Dalton Utilities is undertaking a $70 million overhaul of its Riverwater treatment plant, converting from traditional filter media treatment to a membrane treatment.
Water utilities across the state are tasked with implementation of watershed protection plans to monitor and assess the quality of local streams and rivers.
“At DU, we are taking this to a new level as we have begun the process to convert a former dairy farm along the Conasauga River into a wetland that will be permanently established to protect the river,” Buckner said.
Can drought turn off the spigot?
Drought is always a concern, but there are water conservation plans from the EPD that will go into effect if that occurs.
Buckner said Dalton Utilities is in a good position to handle a prolonged drought for several reasons. The first defense against drought is its drinking water reservoirs, which total 2.69 billion gallons of treatable water. That’s enough for 100 days of supply without withdrawing any water from other surface water streams and rivers, Buckner added.
DU has interconnections with adjacent water systems at the edges of its distribution system — Eastside Utility District to the north, Catoosa Utility District to the west, Chatsworth Water to the east and Calhoun Utility (District) to the south.
“These interconnections could be utilized in the event of a severe drought or other system emergency requiring additional water supply,” Buckner said.
The state EPD requires all communities impacted by drought conditions to implement water conservation measures to reduce nonessential customer use of drinking water.
“As conditions worsen, those mandated water-saving requirements become more stringent which would serve to reduce system demands,” Buckner said. “We believe all of these measures put Dalton Utilities in an enviable position relative to most other water utilities in terms of our ability to deal with a prolonged drought.”
Barwick recently hosted a cotton agronomics and row crop irrigation meeting, where discussions included ways to conserve water through use of smart irrigation scheduling with apps and in-field soil-moisture sensors. Two farmers from Thomas County are participating in a cotton trial focusing on irrigation management and water conservation this season.
“This work will likely be presented at the national level to further promote conservation," she said.
SunLight Project writers Charles Oliver, Kevin C. Hall, Eve Copeland-Brechbiel, Thomas Lynn and Katelyn Umholtz contributed to this report.