Dr. Richard McNider has spent years studying how the U.S. Southwest
and parts of the Midwest marshaled their water resources to build the world’s
most efficient food production system.
But McNider, distinguished professor emeritus at the
University of Alabama in Huntsville, has also seen how the long-term implications
of climate change coupled with overuse in these regions, particularly in the
Southwest, threaten these water resources and with it the future of American
The Southeast's Opportunity
Sooner or later something has got to give, he contends. And when it does, he says the part of the
country that has remained on the periphery of agricultural production — the
eastern United States and especially the Southeast — should prepare to fill
some of the void caused by these stresses.
Otherwise, prolonged drought in the Southwest could result
in millions of acres being permanently lost to American agriculture, according
to McNider, who heads the Alabama University Irrigation Initiative, a coalition
of professors who are working to articulate a comprehensive agricultural irrigation
plan for the state.
“The Southwest is especially vulnerable because they rely
totally on irrigation in that arid climate,” McNider says.
Growing Challenges in the Southwest
In recent years, the sources of this irrigation are under
increasing pressure not only from growing population needs but also from
environmentalists, who demand that rivers once drained or dammed up to serve
agriculture should be allowed to flow again into the ocean.
Dr. Wesley Porter, who recently was hired by the Alabama
Cooperative Extension System to serve as its statewide irrigation specialist,
witnessed the environmental stresses firsthand while working as an agricultural
engineer for Oklahoma State University.
“In certain regions of Oklahoma, they have not had a full
season of irrigation water available for the past two years and potentially won’t
have it for this upcoming season,” Porter says. “The reservoir from which
irrigation water is withdrawn is below the allowable release capacity, which effectively
means that producers are out of water.”
A similar crisis is playing out on the high plains of Texas.
“Two things are occurring: Producers are contending with reduced
water not only caused by the draw but also by the extreme heat,” he says. “Even
without draw down, the extreme heat and low humidity has prevented them from
irrigating entire crops.”
There are other ominous signs. McNider cites research which has shown that
the last century — the century of vast agricultural and population expansion in
the U.S. Southwest — was likely the wettest one in the last 500 years, a disturbing
sign that water will not be as bountiful over the next century.
A somewhat different scenario characterizes the Midwest.
“Because of the richness and water-holding capacity of the
soil, an unusually large amount of corn and soybean production ended up being concentrated
in a relatively small area,” McNider says.
“And we initially didn’t see the vulnerability that could accompany this
heavy concentration in such a small region.”
“The 2012 drought was
bad but it fortunately was not concentrated in this center of corn and soybean production
— and if it had been, things would have been much worse.”
The trends playing out in the Southwest and parts of the
Midwest conceivably place the Southeast in an unusually advantageous position.
McNider is working with other members of the Irrigation Initiative
to ensure that Alabama, in particular, fully capitalizes on these
An Opportunity, Not a Windfall
At Auburn University, Dr. Samuel Fowler, director of the
university’s Water Research Institute, contends that while the challenges in the
Southwest and Midwest will not provide Alabama’s agricultural sector with a
windfall, they will offer the state a stronger incentive to place more
agricultural acreage under irrigation.
Fowler says as much as a half million acres ultimately could
be placed under irrigation in Alabama. And
while these levels would not compare to the neighboring states of Georgia and
Mississippi, which have a combined 3 million acres under irrigation, such a level
of adoption would ensure that the state’s agricultural sector better
capitalizes on its abundant rainfall.
Even so, challenges remain, Fowler says.
“We just don’t have the areas in our state with ready access
to groundwater that has made irrigation so cost-effective in our neighboring
states,” he says.
Likewise, Alabama and the rest of the Southeast lack the long
growing season prevalent in California and much of the Southwest. Moreover, only parts of Florida and Georgia possess
the agricultural marketing structure that has served California and much of the
Southwest so well in the past.
California has also benefited from an abundant labor pool as
well as a large body of labor legislation that has facilitated the efficient
use and movement of labor — something the Southeast lacks, according to Fowler.
Prevailing land-ownership patterns in Alabama have also
stymied widespread irrigation adoption.
“Many producers rent rather than own the land they farm, and
this presents a special challenge because irrigation involves a long-term
investment,” says Fowler.
Riparian rights, a longstanding tradition in Alabama, have
also presented challenges.
“An irrigation system can only access water that is adjacent
to the land and farmers currently can’t move water across riparian land to
nonriparian land to irrigate.”
Alabama’s aging farm population is another limiting factor.
“An older farmer is going to think twice about investing
several hundred thousand dollars in an irrigation system if the return on
investment doesn’t occur until years down the road,” Fowler says. “Irrigation requires
intensive levels of management, but for many older farmers, dry land farming is
all they’ve ever known.”
Cause for Optimism
Even so, all three experts contend that there is cause for
optimism in Alabama. While Fowler is confident that some half a million acres could
come under irrigation in Alabama, he contends that under ideal conditions, this
level could reach as high as a million acres.
In 2012, the Alabama Legislature passed a law enabling producers
to apply for tax credits to defray the costs of implementing irrigation systems
or enhancing systems already in operation on their farms. Some 150 producers took advantage of that
credit the year it was passed.
Likewise, Porter says the Southeast is considerably ahead of
other regions in terms of irrigation research and producer application.
Porter, Fowler and McNider all agree that judicious management
of irrigated water resources will be a critical factor.
“I think management will be the key,” Porter says. “There
are countries dealing with desert-like conditions that have perfected water use
efficiency and water savings.
“We can learn from them.”
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