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Delta faces down a threat to water sustainability

templateMississippi would never be mistaken for California, but there is at least one thing they share.

Each lays claim as among the most fertile and productive growing regions in the world.

California’s Central Valley is about 450 miles long and 60 miles wide at the most. It looks like a large cucumber.

Mississippi’s Delta, 200 miles long and 70 miles at its widest, is ovoid, shaped like, well, a cotton seed.

And it seems that in their shapes is their destiny.
California’s valley produces between a third and a half of the fruits and vegetables grown in the nation.

The Delta made cotton king, of course, though it no longer holds that lofty distinction.

Both have a water supply problem.

California is entering its fourth year of a severe drought that threatens the valley’s bounty. There is what The New York Times called “a drilling frenzy” as growers sink wells and sap more water from the aquifers that are dropping precipitously.
Surface water — lakes and rivers — have been withered by a lack of meltoff from mountain ranges.

Mississippi’s is not drought-driven and is not in the same league as the California problem.

Still, it is a major threat.

The Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer — one of two major aquifers in the region and the one that is closer to the surface and is the source for agricultural irrigation — has dropped dramatically.

Since the water from that formation is high in iron, it is not good for drinking water or for industrial use, according to Dean Pennington, executive director of the Yazoo Mississippi Delta Joint Water Management District. The Sparta-Wilcox aquifer is used for those purposes, Pennington said. “It is used so lightly, it is not showing any kinds of problems.”

Irrigation got underway on a large scale in the 1970s in the Delta and since the 1980s water wells there have proliferated — from about 3,000 to 18,000 using the Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer, or 80 percent of the wells in the state, Pennington said.

In 1988, a drought in the state forced the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality to order Delta farmers who had been irrigating from streams to stop doing that, Pennington said.

“That really drove home to people in a realistic way that this water resource issue in the Delta was a serious problem,” he said.

The Yazoo Mississippi Delta district was formed from representatives of each of the 17 counties wholly or partially in the Delta.

Most irrigation water in the Delta is taken from the aquifer, the replenishment of which has steadily fallen short of total recharge, said Pennington, who has a doctorate in soil science.

Five hundred and 50 wells across the region are checked twice yearly to measure the distance from the surface to the aquifer. Some areas are seeing more decline than others, Pennington said. “Water is naturally recharging back into the ground, but every year we’re taking out more than the recharge.”

In the 1970s the level was 20 to 30 feet below the surface and now it’s 50 to 60 feet below it, he said. The aquifer is about 150 feet thick, he said.

Unlike California, agriculture and cities are not competing for the same water source, he said. “It makes life a little easier here. We have some serious water problems to deal with, but we have it so much better than the rest of the world.”
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The district is also working toward maximizing use of surface water.

It and the Army Corps of Engineers are working on a $3 million study of diverting water out of the Yazoo River — which is fed by three flood-control reservoirs, “which has more water than it really needs” — and into the Quiver River, then to the central Delta, he said.

The Quiver would be used “kind of like a canal, so we can use that surface water to replace groundwater. The good thing is that there is a lot of surface water that is not being used,” he said.

“It’s not a question of if we’re going to need extra surface water.

We’re going to need the water if we’re going to do what we like to do with the Delta.”

“We do not have one grand scheme or one silver bullet that is the solution,” he said.

Kay Whittington, director of the MDEQ Water and Land Division, said that “conservation is the near-term priority. There is a lot of potential there for water savings,”

A task force led by the MDEQ was formed. Its other members are the Yazoo Mississippi District, Delta FARM, Mississippi Farm Bureau, Delta Council, National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

One conservation option is to put in “well fields” near the Mississippi for pumping water to the aquifer or to streams, she said.

A voluntary program calling for 5 percent of all the wells in each county to be metered by June 30, 2014 was met, she said. And the next deadline, Feb. 1, 2015 to report the data was also met, she said.

The next step is to have meters installed in 10 percent of each county’s wells by Dec. 31 and reports filed by Feb. 1, 2016.

If the program goals are not met, they will become mandatory, she said. But money for meters is available through the NRCS in that case. Meters cost $1,000 to $2,000 each.
Dr. Jason Krutz of the Mississippi State University Extension Service is helping farmers with conservation steps, and his success rate is reduction of water use by 20 percent to 50 percent while making the same yield, she said.

“The potential there is great, and that all can be done right now,” she said.

“We know we don’t have years to waste, we don’t have more decades to waste to find the solutions.”

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