In a production year in which rainfall is plentiful and some growers even have to cope with flooding, it’s easy to forget about the specter of drought. But at least 25 Alabama farmers will soon start preparing for the next inevitable dry spell, thanks to federal funding.

The U.S. government this year has started subsidizing the construction of small, on-farm reservoirs that will collect water during rainy winters, with that water then being used to irrigate crops during dry springs and summers.

In the first round of funding, $1.58 million has been sent to Alabama farmers. Of the 180 farmers who applied for the financial assistance, 25 were selected for the reservoir project. Funds from the program have to be matched dollar-for-dollar by the growers who were selected to participate.

The Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, created in the 2008 farm bill, kicked off its first year with $58 million for 63 conservation and water quality improvement projects in 21 states around the country.

Proposed projects from Alabama farmers were ranked based on how much water would be saved, whether there are protections in place against runoff, how efficiency would be improved and whether environmental impact on wetlands would be minimal, says Steve Musser, the assistant state conservationist for programs with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The mission of the cost-share program, says Musser, is to demonstrate new and innovative concepts on agricultural lands that producers will widely adopt. The maximum funding provided per farm was $100,000, and the 25 Alabama farmers chosen are a diverse group spread around the state with operations of many sizes.

Although all 25 farmers will fill their new reservoirs by harvesting from streams, other options could be used in the future, such as capturing normal runoff in the watershed, Musser says. Also, some of the 25 are using part of the federal money to improve the efficiency of their irrigation systems by switching from high-pressure nozzles that spray water long distances — losing some to evaporation — to low-pressure systems that use less energy and have less evaporation.

The state’s overall application was coordinated by the Alabama Farmers Federation, the Alabama Soil and Water Conservation Committee and the Alabama Universities Irrigation Initiative.

The NRCS will track water flow to determine how much water is drawn out of the streams and when, and how much, eventually is used on farmland.

“We'll monitor stream levels to prove to other groups that we did harvest when the stream levels were above normal flow,” Musser says. “We think they'll see that irrigation is not as damaging as they thought it would be.”

The new federal policy as it relates to irrigation has its origin in Alabama, where university researchers and legislators have been looking for ways to solve the drought crises that periodically plague the state.

A statewide program to develop irrigation resources might revive many acres of Alabama farmland and bring billions of dollars in new farm revenue into the state each year, according to scientists at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

Working with agricultural specialists at Auburn University, Tuskegee University and Alabama A&M University, the UAH scientists have studied the potential economic impact of irrigation in Alabama.

“Since the 1950s, Alabama has lost close to 10 million acres of farming, due in large part to federally-subsidized agriculture in Western deserts,” says John Christy, director of UAH’s Earth System Science Center. “Converting only two million of those lost acres to irrigated agriculture might generate annual farm revenue on the order of $1 billion to $2 billion dollars. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an economic development initiative that brought $1 billion into the state?”

Preliminary research found that inadequate summer rainfall reduces Alabama’s farm production about one of every three years. As part of the research, UAH and Auburn scientists studied how much farmers might cut the risk of crop failure. One portion of that study looked at the cost effectiveness of creating ponds and reservoirs to capture abundant winter rainfall that could be used to irrigate crops during the summer.

“We have plenty of highly suitable land for irrigated agriculture in Alabama,” says James Hairston, a professor of soils and agronomy at Auburn University. “Studies by Auburn and by farmers themselves have shown that irrigation works, even in humid climates.”

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com