What is in this article?:
• Potential economic benefits could be in the billions of dollars, easily rivaling any other economic development in the state.
• “I’m not saying I think Alabama will make a quantum leap in increased agricultural production and irrigation,” says Sam Fowler. “But we can increase our agricultural production and reduce our deficit in areas such as corn and soybeans.”
INCREASING IRRIGATED CROPLAND in Alabama could add billions of dollars to the state’s economy, says Sam Fowler, director of the Auburn University Water Resources Center.
Not a surprise
It comes as no surprise, says Fowler, that 80 percent of the irrigation in the United States is west of the Mississippi River. “If you look at the use of water, and the net consumption of water for all purposes in the U.S., there’s a distinct difference between the Eastern U.S. and the Western U.S. The Western part uses a large portion of their available water, and there are increasing demands for the water that is available. There are parts of the West that actually use more water than they have, so they’re over-subscribed,” he says.
The Eastern U.S., however, uses a very small portion of its available water, says Fowler. “We have a lot of potential for additional water use in the eastern U.S. The biggest part of renewable water — through runoff — occurs in the eastern part of the United States. Alabama is directly in the center of a good area — we have a lot of renewable water resources in this state.”
Looking at the specific use of water for irrigation, again the West comes out on top, he says. “A lot of the eastern portion of the United States uses less water for irrigation purposes. Alabama is among the states that uses the least amount of available water for irrigation.
“We have an abundance of water, but we don’t have much irrigation. Iowa doesn’t use much water for irrigation, but they have soils that hold water well during the winter. In Alabama, we’re always 14 days away from a major drought due to our soil characteristics.”
Many of the federal programs enacted in the 2008 farm bill encouraged taking more land out of irrigation in the Western U.S., says Fowler, so there are more irrigation decreases in the West.
“Western irrigation is not sustainable,” he says. “It’s already in decline, and that portion of U.S. crop production is going to go somewhere else. The question is, can some of it come to Alabama? I think we can get a niche part of it.
“I don’t think we’ll get a windfall of crop production in the state, but I think we can get enough to make a significant economic impact. Personally, I think that a lot of the agricultural production we lose in the Western U.S. will go offshore.”
It’s difficult, he says, to make a blanket statement that irrigation is economically feasible in Alabama.
“It is, but under the right conditions,” says Fowler. “If you’ve got access to water, you have a good land ownership arrangement, and the right capital, then it’s economically feasible.
“Our research says that given reasonable assumptions, and based on crop models and historic weather data, in many cases irrigated crop production in Alabama would have been more profitable than non-irrigated production. Agriculture would have been a better driver in the state’s economy with irrigation than it has been in the past 20 years.