Alabama Irrigation Project & Water Management

Alabama Irrigation Project & Water Management

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Even in a water rich state like Alabama, where average annual rainfall is plentiful,  agricultural irrigation can provide the difference between success and failure. Ask anyone who has a backyard garden.

For the medium and large-scale farming operations, though, irrigation is not a widely-used practice in Alabama. The absence of irrigation has probably contributed to the decline in agriculture as a major segment of the state’s economy.

According to USDA data the top 5 states using agricultural irrigation are: Nebraska, California, Texas, Arkansas and Idaho. Data from the USDA’s 2008 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey shows that 54.9 million acres were irrigated in the U.S. using 91.2 milion acre feet of water.  This data covers agriculture irrigation only—horticultural operations, lawns, golf courses and other commercial irrigation uses are not included.

Misguided: Alabama Has No Water Policy But Wants More Irrigation

The State of Alabama also lacks a statewide water policy. Alabama is one of the few remaining states that doesn’t have any type of plan to maximize the use of Alabama’s vast water resources in ways that benefit all sectors of our society: Recreation, industry, agriculture and the environment. Without such a plan, Alabama is at the mercy of annual rainfall and and risk of upstream diversions (like Atlanta’s suburban and exurban sprawl). The lack of a statewide water policy probably means it’s a good thing that we haven’t seen widespread agricultural irrigation, so far, because without a plan we might be at risk of jeopardizing our future through  misuse of water resources (like is happening throughout the Southwestern U.S.).

Researchers in Alabama have been studying how to put together an irrigation program that would allow commodity farmers (and others) to more easily and affordably implement irrigation systems into their farming operations. Building on this research, they’ve proposed an incentive program to encourage agriculture irrigation.

Currently, a bill to authorize state income tax credits for the system (SB 153) is moving quickly through the Alabama legislature—politicians heard the phrase “more agriculture equals more jobs” and jumped in to support the bill. But it’s veryimportant that such a bill be adopted only in tandem with a plan to authorize, develop and implement a statewide water policy—otherwise, we risk imposing a system that overtaxes the water resources for the benefit of a few farms with direct access to flowing streams.

The Alabama Rivers Alliance is working hard to encourage the passage of legislation that would lead to the development and adoption of a comprehensive water management plan for Alabama, something that most southern states already have. More on the Alabama Water Agenda here.

The Alabama Rivers Alliance opposes passage of SB 153 (and corresponding HB 328) without a statewide water plan. Otherwise the tax incentives bill is premature (and could do more harm than good, in the long term).

Personally, I think we need more agriculture in Alabama but we need sustainable agriculture that emphasizes food production, not corn for ethanol.  We need agriculture that follows practices that preserve and protect our topsoil and our entire ecosystems and doesn’t poison our watersheds through the intensive use, overuse and misuse of petroleum-derived fertilizers and poisonous pesticides and herbicides that destroy the resources that make agriculture possible. Honeybees are a vital part of agriculture. Just ask the almond farmers in California.

More on the Alabama Irrigation Initiative

Cameron Handyside, a researcher at at the University of Alabama Huntsville Earth System Science Center,  delivered a very informative presentation on the science behind the Alabama Irrigation Initiative  to close out the Saturday breakout sessions at the  Alabama Water Rally at Camp Beckwith.

Handyside said the things that make it appear the scientists behind the project care about the sustainability of the irrigation initiative and recognize that Western irrigation practices will soon bring an end to much (or most) agricultural in those areas. My concern is that the shortsighted Alabama politicians will only focus on the economic benefits of agricultural output and ignore the environmental inputs that are needed to make real, sustainable agriculture possible.

Handyside began his talk with a bit of history about the 20th century history of agriculture in the U.S. and  the transformation of the western deserts into the center of American agriculture through irrigation. Here’s a brief bit of video from the presentation describing this history.

Handyside also described the problems that are now becoming manifest as a result of overuse of water in a region that doesn’t have enough water to support both the water-intensive irrigation practices and urban expansion.

Irrigation in a desert ultimately causes many problems. One consequence of irrigation practices in the San Joaquin Delta is that it devastated the salmon industry. And ultimately the lack of water to flush the fields is now causing once-productive farmland to go fallow due to mineral build-up that occurs through irrigation.

The decline of agriculture in Alabama has hurt the state economically, especially in the high-poverty areas of the Black Belt region.

Climate change is exacerbating problems in the Southwest. In contrast, climate change models indicate the Southeastern United States will experience a stable rate of rainfall, or even an increase in rainfall.

Graphic showing climate change model predicting rainfall for the U.S.

Researchers at the UAH Earth Systems Science Center and elsewhere have been studying stream flow data, precipitation data and more in an effort to drive irrigation as a viable option to expand agriculture in Alabama.

The Alabama approach is designed around small reservoirs built on each farm.

Instream Flow Data

The researchers seem to be taking into account the environmental issues associated with irrigation efforts. They’ve spent a lot of time creating models of river flows based on instream flow data. One challenge is that the data is dated and, due to state and federal budget cuts, increasingly unavailable.

If the instream flow data is outdated, unavailable or based on years when rainfall was above-average, the models are useless and the long-term consequences will be the destruction of entire watershed ecosystems.

Take the Colorado River for instance. It’s widely-recognized that rights to withdraw water from the river were based on data collected during a wetter-than-normal era. Now that rainfall is shifting back to more historically-normal levels, the reservoirs are being depleted faster than they are being replenished. Colorado River Compact withdrawals based on an average annual flow of 16.4,000,000 acre feet. Tree ring data and other information sources indicate the average annual flow is lower. Handyside used the figure of 10 million acre feet as the annual flow rate for the Colorado River (see slide below).

According to an article in the current issue of Nature Conservancy magazine (2012, Issue 1), recent withdrawals from the Colorado River are overtaxing the system by as much as 20% and more than 75% all withdrawals from the Colorado River system are used in agriculture.

Obviously, then If water use rights and policies aren’t based on sound and current scientific data, the entire system will eventually collapse, something we’re seeing happen right now in the Western United States.

Handyside points out that Alabama is one of the wettest states, based on rainfall, yet has some of the lowest levels of irrigation of all ag-producing states.

This slide features Map ID 11407 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, 2007 National Resources Inventory, which illustrates the annual precipitation minus potential evapotranspiration rates (PET).

Precipitation map from United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resource Conservation Service,

In this video excerpt, Handyside begins to illustrate the basic science behind the irrigation initiative, using average max flows from 1931 – 2002 for the Alabama River at the Cleburne Lock & Dam.

Handyside gave a lot of detail about the science, data analysis and modeling behind the irrigation initiative, but I don’t have that on video. I decided to listen and pay attention rather than videotaping. I hope to put together a more detailed blog post describing more specifically the latest modeling data the researchers have developed, but that will require getting more information from the researchers.

The ultimate success of the irrigation project depends on Alabama’s adoption of a water management plan that would make such an irrigation program viable. Otherwise, the few farmers with direct access to creeks and rivers could benefit from building reservoirs to fill during max stream flow periods  while those without direct access to the flowing waters are left behind.

And, more importantly, a comprehensive irrigation program without a water management plan could ultimately lead to less water for everyone and, ultimately, to damage to the watershed ecosystems that depend on minimum flow levels throughout the year, even during the dry summer months.

Update About Agricultural Irrigation in the Southeast: I ran across this tidbit of information while looking for copies of the maps Handyside used in his presentation slides:

Groundwater declines in the Sparta aquifer in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee have raised concerns about the sustainability of the resource. Some areas have shifted their source of supply to surface water. Regional water-level decliens of as much as 70 ft have resulted in interstate concerns over continued and increased pumpage in the Memphis, Tennessee area.

Source: Reilly, T.E., Dennehy, K.F., Alley, W.M., and Cunningham, W.L. (2008). Groundwater availability in the United States: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1323. Available online at

The Alabama Rivers Alliance is working hard to encourage the passage of legislation that would lead to the development and adoption of a comprehensive water management plan for Alabama, something that most southern states already have. More on the Alabama Water Agenda here. But the Alabama legislature will be acted in a very shortsighted and ultimately harmful way (as usual) if it promotes irrigation without a water management and water use policy and plan.

About The Alabama Universities Irrigation Initiative (AUII)

From Alabama Water Rally workshop session description: The goal of the AUII is “research and implementation of small scale reservoirs for irrigation use on farms during drought conditions.” The idea “is that reservoirs could be filled during the winter months, when other demands on water supply are low and rainfall is relatively high. Withdrawals would be based on ‘Environmental Flows’; ensuring that the ecological health of the river is maintained.”

Useful Links

Alabama Rivers Alliance: Why Alabama Needs a Plan for Its Waters

From the Troy Messenger: Initiative Seeks to Increase Irrigation in Alabama

From the Southeast Farm Press: Obstacles Still Hinder Irrigation in Alabama

From the Alabama Cooperative Extension System: Alabama Ag Irrigation Info Network

Geological Survey of Alabama: Groundwater Assessment Program: Program Update and Current Groundwater Research: This is   Report on viability of groundwater as a source for large-scale irrigation in Alabama (pdf and it takes a while to download)

From researchers at Colorado State University (PDF): A History of Drought in Colorado: Lessons Learned & What Lies Ahead

About Sheree

Change Catalyst, Idea Explorer, Dot-Connector, Square Peg