In the midst of one of the worst droughts on record, the Auburn University Water Resources Center recently convened a conference to address problems arising from, among other things, weather, contamination, saltwater intrusion, lower water tables and inadequate distribution systems in Alabama.
The meeting’s agenda was packed with an impressive array of state, regional, national and international experts on global water policy, but one of the most eloquent of the presenters was north Alabama farmer Dennis Bragg, who spoke candidly about his approach to irrigation and the state’s potential for managing its abundant water resources.
“If you’re a farmer’s son or daughter, it’s always guaranteed what you’ll be doing on Saturday or during the summer — you’ll be farming, and I did it from a young age,” says Bragg, whose family farming operation consists of about 7,000 acres in the Tennessee Valley.
After graduating from Auburn, Bragg says he had to ask himself an important question. “Do I go home and farm what I have — what my grandfather had and what my father has — or do I change the form of that farm? I decided we would try to irrigate it all. From day one, we started drilling wells, and we haven’t stopped. From day one, we started building pivots, and we haven’t stopped,” he says.
Bragg now has 17 center pivots watering 2,400 acres or roughly one-third of the farm. Irrigation helps to provide a balance especially in a year like 2007, he says, during which much of north Alabama has been categorized by the U.S. Drought Monitor as being in an “exceptional” drought, the worst such conditions in the nation.
Managing water is a priority if America is to revive its rural economies, says Bragg. “We cannot just say that we’re going to produce 15 billion gallons of ethanol. No one has asked the question if we’re going to pump the water to make that ethanol or if God is going to give it to us. If you think corn is high at $4, wait until it doesn’t rain in Iowa.”
It’s predictable, he says, that Alabama will experience another drought. “Alabama is blessed with water, but we don’t do a very good job of managing it. We need a water policy for Alabama, and we need to build an infrastructure for irrigation. Our annual rainfall is 50 inches, over every square foot of the state. That’s a lot of water, and it’s easier to manage here because there’s slope in Alabama, and the water runs downhill.”
There’s not a shortage of water, says Bragg, but there is a shortage of imagination. “We were farming ‘zero’ irrigated acres and had to create a way to make that number grow, so we drilled for wells. We sit on a 100-foot-thick limestone rock that’s about 100 miles wide and 30 miles long. There will be a crack in that rock, and if it rains, water moves into that crack. You have to be lucky enough to drill down and hit one. We were lucky enough in 1993 to hit a crack, and that was enough. It was very enticing after that first one to drill another one, and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. We’ve probably drilled 25 to 30 holes dry and wet,” he says.
There is ample water, says Bragg, but there’s less creativity and management being applied to that water. “Legislation is reactive not proactive, and it is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Human nature is to respond to our immediate circumstances, and that’s not all bad because we must take care of our daily needs. I have to respond to today’s drought right now and take care of my farm.”
Alabama could build an irrigation infrastructure that would bring in about one million irrigated acres with an investment of about $1 billion, he says. “That’s not $1 billion from the state or federal government, but from farmers or farmers and their bankers willing to invest in irrigation. That $1 billion then produces another $1 billion over 10 years to pay back that loan.”
Historically, a farmer has been able to get a 20 percent return on an irrigation pivot, says Bragg. “That’s yield times price,” he adds. “This particular year, I’ve built four systems, borrowing money over a seven-year period. With the drought, if I had not put in these systems, the loss would be equivalent to the amount of the loan. I’ll have a 100-percent return on my investment.”