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Drought: Farmers dig deeper, water tables drop, competition heats up

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So far his efforts have paid off, putting him in the not entirely welcome position of profiting from a national hardship – the worst US drought since 1956. He isn't alone. Dooly County as a whole increased the value of its row crop production from $100 million in 2010 to $140 million in 2011, perhaps the drought's apex.

Paradoxically, if you have water, there may be no better time to be a farmer. US net farm income last year reached a record $98 billion, and with commodity prices still high and rising, that record could be challenged this year, even with drought-lowered yields.

But irrigating to slake the soil's thirst puts attempts to achieve drought resistance on a collision course with growing concerns, even in the humid Southeast, about water allocation and depletion of the aquifers, adding more uncertainty for America's agricultural juggernaut.

"Once those irrigation pumps get turned on, it reduces the surface flow in river valleys and tributaries. And once people start establishing those connections, it becomes a legal battle," says Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the University of Nebraska's National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln. "That's the danger of seeing that shift to irrigation – it's not an infinite resource. At some point the water table will respond."

The US Geological Survey has found central Georgia suffering from long-term ground water depletion similar to that experienced by the Ogallala aquifer beneath Texas and the High Plains aquifer beneath Nebraska and Kansas.

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