With his farmer constituents in Alabama suffering from a drought of historic proportions, U.S. Rep. Terry Everett — a Republican who represents the southeastern portion of the state — has submitted legislation that would provide federal funds for irrigating farmland throughout the southern and eastern U.S.

Everett’s proposal was submitted as part of the U.S. House’s version of the new farm bill.

Irrigation, prevalent mostly out West, would increase production, mitigate drought and eventually cut down on the taxpayer-funded billion-dollar emergency bailouts for farmers, according to Everett.

The proposal calls for $100 million a year in grants to improve water quality and quantity, including projects to capture water, store it in reservoirs, and use it to irrigate crops.

“It just makes plain sense,” says Everett. “With these recurring droughts like we have now and the drought relief funding we’ve had to do over and over and over again, this will help alleviate that.”

Everett’s proposal, backed by research from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Auburn University, has been endorsed by Alabama farmers who want to tap nearby streams while they are in winter flood stages, but don’t have the resources or incentive to build the reservoir and distribute the stored water.

The grants would be awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a competitive basis.

The new Regional Ground and Surface Water Enhancement Program sailed through untouched when multiple amendments to the farm bill were recently considered by a subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee.

Everett says he is not aware of any opposition to the program, but the fight for funding would be tough.

Reps. Jo Bonner of Mobile and Mike Rogers of Saks, Republicans on the committee with Everett, are also backing the program. And Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is planning to sponsor it in the Senate.

The national non-profit group Environmental Defense also supports the emphasis on water projects as a way to improve conservation and protect the environment, but would like to see even more federal money dedicated to it.

"There could be projects that are a win, win, win ... for conservation organizations, local governments and producer organizations,” says Sara Hopper, an attorney with Environmental Defense.

Everett says the legislation is aimed at giving farmers the ability not only to survive the high costs of drought years, but also to potentially avoid the negative impact of drought altogether.

“My legislation is being offered for House consideration at the same time Congress is writing the new five-year federal farm bill. I hope the ideas I am advancing via this legislation will be adopted,” he says.

Everett says the irrigation bill also is an attempt at preserving the nation’s farmland. “Farming once dominated the countryside and provided a solid economic base to many rural communities,” he says. “But studies show that Alabama has lost more than 10 million acres of row crops over the last half century. While there are a number of reasons for this steady decline, from rising business and fuel costs, to world competition, drought has hit our farmers and ranchers particularly hard.”

Alabama actually gets more than enough rainfall in a normal year to satisfy its agricultural needs — an average of 50 inches, says the congressman.

“However, much of this rainfall comes during the winter and spring time, when it is not needed. To make matters worse, Alabama’s soils do not hold water very well, and what rain we do get in the off-season years is soon lost. By comparison, farmers in the Midwest and Western states enjoy the advantage of soils that hold their water, coupled with an extensive and effective irrigation system,” he says. If Alabama farmers could find a way to capture and use the abundance of surface water each year, he adds, they would not only be able to withstand the frequent summer droughts but could also increase production.

“This legislation provides federal cost-share assistance to help farmers construct irrigation reservoirs for year-round use. Farmers’ ability to expand their productivity could also open the door to biofuel crops which will benefit the nation as a whole,” says Everett.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com