The spring must flow: Skywater Group works to maintain Radium Springs' majesty for generations to come

·4 min read

Sep. 3—ALBANY — Since its quiet inception in 2019 the Skywater Group has been studying, planning, research planning and forming partnerships in the pursuit of a single goal: keeping the flow at Radium Springs, well, flowing.

Pull up an item about the spring online, like this one from treehugger.com, and facts like these will be in the entry: "Radium Springs is the largest natural spring in Georgia and is fed by an underground cave that pumps 70,000 gallons of water per minute that later flows into the Flint River. The crystal-blue spring gets its name from the trace amounts of radium discovered in the water in the 1920s."

A searcher for information would not be alone, as Radium Springs is perhaps the most-searched-for topic online for Dougherty County. The natural wonder is also one of the top draws for tourism and recreation in the Albany area.

During a recent interview, Dougherty County Commissioner Russell Gray recounted meeting a couple from Japan who had heard of the spring, which is part of a county park, and stopped to take a look while driving to Orlando.

But what if that ancient eruption of water into the blue spring feeding Skywater Creek ceased its emptying a short distance later into the Flint River? The question isn't academic, as it has in fact occurred.

"Radium Springs quit flowing for the first time in the early 1980s," Gordon Rogers, executive director and riverkeeper for the environmental group Flint Riverkeeper, said. "The science became quite clear pretty quickly. There's an urban myth around here that it was (due to) Miller Coors, which it is not."

The brewery, now Molson Coors, actually withdraws the water it uses in beer-making from an aquifer that lies below the Floridan aquifer, which is the huge underground ocean of water that feeds the spring in Dougherty County.

There is an interplay between the spring system and surface water like the Flint and other streams, and in severe drought years the flow has actually reversed, with river water sucked into the underground abyss instead of flowing out, Rogers said.

"It has periodically quit flowing," he said. "It even does it during the wet years. It even did it this year, which is astounding with all the rain we've had."

The Skywater Group includes hydrologists, farmers, industry leaders and conservationists like Rogers, but all are dedicated to a single overall goal.

The two-pronged approach aims to raise interest and awareness and make sure large water-users are utilizing the latest technology to conserve that vital natural resource.

So far some $300,000 in investments have been made to do things like install flow gauges inside the spring itself to learn more about why the flow varies. And a $12.5 million federal grant announced in April will include $850,000 for conservation projects in the springhead.

"That will continue the interest in better technology and also invest in getting access into deeper aquifers," Rogers said.

Like Molson Coors, farmers could tap into the deeper aquifers that lie far below the Floridian and, in times when Radium Springs is struggling, stop withdrawals from the Floridan and switch to those other sources.

With an economy so heavily dependent on agriculture, the use of water for that purpose is vital for the area. Farmers have invested in water-saving measures in recent decades. And the technology that makes that possible is amazing. It's not just a farmer driving out to turn an irrigation system on or off. In fact, those units can be controlled from the office or cellphone.

These days farmers can turn individual units on and off with the touch of a button when a particular field has received rainfall and leave them running where it has not. Soil sensors allow for accurately measuring how much water is needed in either an entire field or just part of it and to apply water accordingly.

During past drought years, individual wells and those serving municipalities have gone dry as the heavy use of irrigation lowered the aquifer's water level in the region.

Through the use of the best technology, Rogers said he believes that the payoff will be maintaining the resource and making sure it keeps on pumping.

"It's a cool project," he said. "We're extremely optimistic we're going to be able to put Radium in a situation where it doesn't stop flowing in the future."