Alabama taking hard look at water resources

It's one of those timeless parables we learn as children. The ant labors through the sweltering heat of summer building a house and storing supplies for the winter as the grasshopper sings and dances and throws caution to the wind.

There is a lesson here for Alabamians, says an informal coalition of experts. In terms of water resource management, they contend, Alabamians, much like the grasshopper, have thrown caution to the wind — or, in this case, water down the drain — at the cost of millions of dollars in squandered economic opportunity.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in agriculture, says John Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, one of several scientists involved with the group seeking to educate Alabama policymakers and citizens in general about these squandered opportunities.

Christy estimates Alabama has lost close to 10 million acres of farming — a loss due in large part to the competitive advantage enjoyed by federally-subsidized farm irrigation in Western states.

Returning 2 million acres of this lost farmland back to irrigated agriculture would generate between $1 billion and $2 billion — “more than the entire direct payroll of the Alabama automobile industry,” he says.

What is needed, Christy says are “incentive and investment programs similar to the federal and state programs that turned California's deserts into a farming paradise.”

Blessed with abundant rains and unusually large water resources compared with much of the West, Alabama could accomplish this at only a fraction of the cost, he says.

Another coalition member, Jim Hairston, Alabama Cooperative Extension System water quality scientist and Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils, perceives a huge opportunity for growing more specialty crops in the state, especially in economically depressed regions of Alabama such as the Black Belt.

“With irrigated specialty crops, you could bring whole regions — the poorest regions of the state — all kinds of value-added benefits,” Hairston says.

Much of what was once cropland in the region has reverted to trees and low-intensity pastureland, says UAH Emeritus Professor Richard McNider, another coalition member.

“Gross revenue from timberland is relatively low at $18 to $25 per acre,” he says. “However, this land, when farmed, generates between $300 and $1,000 per acre in gross revenue because of seeds, fertilizer, labor, equipment and profit when making the crop.”

Why, then, haven't Alabamians invested more in irrigated agriculture?

“It's shortsightedness more than anything else,” Hairston says. “Alabama has made a very poor show of moving from the 1950s to a more modern approach by which irrigation is used to supplement rainfall when it's needed for plant production.”

Meanwhile, Hairston says, Alabama lags farther and farther behind neighboring states — a problem that is likely to grow even worse now that urbanization is placing a tighter squeeze on water resources.

“Alabama can't continue to allow federal tax dollars for farm-water distribution systems to benefit only the Western states,” he says.

Why, he asks, should American taxpayers spend millions of dollars a year out west moving water “hundreds of miles to put 4 feet of water a year on deserts” when Alabama water would have to be moved only tens of miles to “put only a few inches of water on already fertile soil?”

What's needed, he says, is an approach similar to what already has been widely adopted in Western states where tax money is used to supply low-cost, irrigated water to cropland located off stream.

Hairston's co-worker, Donn Rodekohr, who has expertise in both water policy and geospatial data processing, couldn't agree more. He believes this may even involve a complete revamping of Alabama's water use doctrine — one that takes the state from the relatively unregulated use of water to one more closely patterned after the West.

“This doctrine (known in the West as prior appropriation) essentially says that the state owns the water and can allocate it according to need,” said Rodekohr, a Nebraska native who grew up appreciating the benefits of this approach.

One advantage of this doctrine, Rodekohr says, is that it enables more development to take place off stream in areas where steady supplies of water are critically needed — often the areas with the greatest return on investment.

“Water can be diverted and stored for use by municipalities, farms — anywhere it's needed.”

Hairston and Rodekohr readily concede that overhauling water doctrine is an ambitious undertaking by any measure, perhaps too ambitious.

For now, the two scientists, along with other experts, are taking only small steps. They first plan to secure state or federal funding for a feasibility study to determine what can be done within the state's existing system of water regulations.

“Even on a small scale, the implications of this approach are tremendous,” Hairston says.

“Just putting a million dollars for agricultural production in areas of the state with the most critical need would boost the state's economy in ways I can't even begin to fathom.”

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