Alabama leaders looking for long-term drought solutions

No one has to remind farmers about the importance of water — they are ever mindful of it, whether weather conditions call for rain or drought. There’s either too little or too much rain, but rarely ever just enough. Water, and the consequences of having a surplus or a deficit, is just part of the job, and farmers come to accept it.

Alabama State Climatologist John Christy said it best: “From a statistician’s point of view, there’s always a drought somewhere. This is our time.”

Our time indeed. Alabama had the dubious distinction a few weeks ago of being the only location in the United States to be placed under the “exceptional drought” designation. Exceptional is the worst level of drought, one that has only a 1 percent or 2 percent chance of occurring. The “exceptional” part of the state is an 11,500-square-mile oval of land in north Alabama.

Back in June, Christy said the state had experienced its driest period since January in the past 114 years. A further 21,400 square miles of Alabama is suffering “extreme drought,” the second highest level. This area reaches south and has spread to parts of Mississippi, Tennessee, western North Carolina, Georgia and the Florida Panhandle.

The big question on everyone’s mind now is what will it take to end a drought of such historic proportions? Farmers need an inch or an inch-and-a-half of rain every week, and that’s unlikely to happen, says the climatologist. “There is no moisture in the soil and no reserves for the plants. It has to come from the sky,” says Christy.

The type of weather typically seen through July doesn’t offer much hope for breaking a drought, he adds. There are two things that could possibly bring the amount of rainfall needed to end Alabama’s current dry streak, says Christy.

The first would be a change in the weather pattern away from the high-pressure ridges that have blocked the flow of moisture into the state. The second would be a tropical storm or hurricane. Two traits of high-pressure systems — light winds and warm temperatures — favor tropical storms, he says. But Alabama missed an opportunity when the first tropical storm of the season — Barry — formed off the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, crossed north Florida and churned north up the eastern seaboard to Maine.

We’ve reported extensively in the pages of this publication about the plight of the region’s corn, cotton and soybean farmers, but the cattle producers are suffering equally. Many in Alabama have begun selling off cattle for fear they won’t have enough hay or grain to feed them through the summer and through next winter. State livestock auctions are seeing a more-than-60-percent increase in the number of cows or calves sold at auctions. In the exceptional drought area, increases are more than 100 percent. With ponds and streams drying up, some farmers have had to buy water for their cattle to drink, and a cow can drink about 30 gallons a day.

While it certainly won’t offer any immediate relief, it is encouraging that Alabama leaders from government, academia and agriculture are joining forces to study the potential of large-scale irrigation for the state’s farming industry.

You wouldn’t know it this year, but Alabama is considered a water-rich state, averaging about 55 to 56 inches of rainfall annually, making it one of the top three states in total rainfall in the nation. However, less than 9 percent of the state’s total cultivated acreage — about 179,000 acres — is irrigated, and that ranks the state as last in the nation in irrigation. As a comparison, about 1.5 to 2.1 million acres are irrigated in Georgia.

The Alabama Irrigation Initiative will help determine the feasibility of developing a statewide system of off-stream reservoirs and ponds that would capture winter rainfall which farmers could tap into during the dry summer months.

Another aspect of the study will focus on Alabama’s water-use policies and how they can be revised to encourage irrigation. Currently, the state adheres to the riparian rights water-use doctrine, which states that only the landowner adjacent to a stream has the right to the water in that stream.

It’s an idea that has been a long time coming, and it still might be several years away, but at least it’s a start. For now, we’ll keep hoping for rain.

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