Alabama State Climatologist John Christy says that when he was growing up in Fresno County, Calif., it was a crime to let a drop of water flow to the sea.
“But there are consequences for that,” said Christy at the recent Alabama Water Policy Symposium held at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). The symposium was one of a series being held statewide to gather stakeholder input into the ongoing efforts to develop a comprehensive water management plan for the state.
“We don’t want to see that type of situation develop here in Alabama with regards to irrigation. When I arrived here and saw the Tennessee River, all I saw were bales of $100 bills flowing down the river,” says Christy. “But there are consequences, as they’ve discovered in California, for when you don’t think about the environmental sustainability of what you’re doing. You might not have the economic sustainability going forward. So in Alabama, we want to look at how we can develop both an economically and environmentally sustainable water plan for food and fiber production.”
Almost not enough when it comes to water
Irrigation has had a bad reputation for destroying river and stream ecosystems, but the different interests in Alabama are working together in the state develop a water plan that’ll protect water resources, says Richard McNider, distinguished professor emeritus in atmospheric and mathematical sciences at UAH.
“Alabama is one of those places where we almost have enough water to make a crop,” says McNider. “But the statistics show that if you’re almost making it in business, then you’re really going out of business, and that is what has happened here over the past 50 years.”
Today, Alabama farmers are planting about 10 percent of the corn acres that they planted in the 1950s, he says. “Corn has been disappearing from the state, and we’re growing just 20 percent of the cotton that we grew in the 1950s.”
The fundamental problem, he adds, is that Alabama doesn’t have the deep water-holding soils of the Midwest.
“They have 8 feet of topsoil, but we have to get rainfall to make a crop. In 1925, a farmer in Alabama got nearly four times for a bushel of corn what an Illinois farmer would get. As long as farmers in Alabama were competing with themselves and local markets, they were okay. But when transportation opened up, the Midwest began shipping its corn to the South, and we were not competitive.
“Now, we’ve ended up with a system where almost 90 percent of our corn is grown in a relatively small area of the Midwest. This puts us in jeopardy, and this became evident last year when there was a drought in the region,” says McNider.
Alabama is a grain-consuming state, barging in huge amounts of corn and soybeans for the poultry industry.
“We simply can’t compete with farmers who are irrigated in the West and Midwest. The government made great investments in Western irrigation.”
Irrigation is a conservation practice, says McNider, because without it, all of the energy invested in a crop is wasted.
“In the West, they need 3 to 4 feet of water to make a crop. Here, we need only 6 to 9 inches of water. In fact, our system is more of an irrigation-assisted one where we get most of water from the rain. If we don’t have a plan, it’ll be like the ‘wild West,’ and we don’t want to repeat their problems.”
Water planning started as academic exercise
Alabamians have been talking about irrigation as an economic development activity for the past several years, says McNider.
“It started out as an academic exercise,” he says. “We were looking at common problems that universities in the state could work on together. But it turned out that what started as an academic exercise also was of great economic importance to the state. Out of that grew the Alabama University Irrigation Initiative, with the purpose of bringing back the state’s agriculture by expanding irrigation.”
Researchers first looked at the question of whether or not irrigation was viable, says McNider.
“We ran some crop models in the Black Belt region of the state, which used to be one of the largest agricultural areas in the state. When the soils in that region become dry, they crack, and when they crack, water can’t be delivered to the plants. Those lands went out of production because they were very vulnerable to drought. But the Black Belt, in our crop models, responded the best to irrigation.”
The amount of water available in the state also has been a focus, says McNider. “While we have abundant water, we have to be careful that our eco-systems, including our rivers and streams, have evolved based on this abundance of water. We can’t be cavalier and assume that just because we have water, it’s not possible to cause stress to our eco-systems. So we need to understand how much water we can draw for irrigation and not harm our environment. We also need to develop tools to determine the impacts on the streams and rivers.”
There are two factors to consider when looking at how much water is available, he says. “What’s the demand in terms of the use of the water, and how much water is supplied, which is how much you get from rainfall. The ratio of those is an indicator of how much water you have.”
Looking at water use throughout the United States, in the eastern portion of the country, for the most part, less than 10 percent of the supplied water is used, says McNider.
“But when we have extreme droughts, our stream flows go down, and the water supply actually decreases, so it doesn’t look as good as the overall average.”
Streams in Alabama have a huge annual cycle, he explains. “In the wintertime, there is plentiful water in the streams and rivers, but in the summer, the flows go down to very low levels. Unfortunately, farmers need water the most during the summer. So we’ve looked at systems that allow us to pull from those winter waters. The winter water we have in our streams is comparable to the snow-packs in the West, and we need to use that in the form of on-farm reservoirs to serve irrigation needs. If we pull from the streams when there’s plenty of water, then we won’t stress the supply so much in the summer.”
Researchers also have looked at how many irrigated acres can be supported in Alabama.
“We do have water protection in the state legislation that grants incentives for installing new irrigation systems. But we don’t have the language that is needed in that we don’t need to provide incentives within the watersheds that are already stressed. We need the tools that will tell us when watersheds are already oversubscribed – that’s a problem that they’ve had in the Western U.S.”
The Alabama Geological Survey also has begun to do an analysis of groundwater as a source of irrigation water, says McNider.
“In addition, we’re looking at where the land is located in the state that we can irrigate and how close it is located to a water supply.”
In a drought year, not having irrigation or even irrigating 50 percent of the state’s land costs Alabama close to half a billion dollars, he says.
“This is what led to the state tax credit for farmers who are willing to invest in irrigation. The state comes close to getting its return back from that tax credit in a couple of years because of increased yields. In the past, farmers were losing money and writing off their losses.”
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