Spurred by a statewide tax incentive, irrigation is expanding rapidly in Alabama, with or without a comprehensive water plan.

“It may come faster than we thought – where we have agriculture competing with the public water supply in many areas,” says Marlon Cook, director of the Groundwater Assessment Program for the Geological Survey of Alabama.

Cook was one of several presenters at the recent Alabama Water Policy Symposium held at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. The symposium – focusing on irrigation – was one of a series being held statewide to gather stakeholder input into the ongoing efforts to develop a comprehensive water management plan for the state.

“At the Geological Survey, we take information requests,” says Cook. “Folks call us who want information on where they should drill a well. We get a lot of requests, but up until two years ago, less than 20 percent of our information requests were coming from farmers. Now it’s probably 70 percent.”

Each week, says Cook, he gets “one or two” requests from farmers for a well location. “I certainly can’t blame them for doing it. I wouldn’t farm if I couldn’t irrigate – it’s a gamble. We’re going to have to get a handle on this, and I think it’s going to have to happen quickly.”

Alabama Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Glen Zorn agrees that a plan needs to happen quickly, but not before water-use assessments are completed.

“How are we going to fix things until we know what we’ve got?” asks Zorn. “We’ve been working in southeast Alabama since 1990-1991. We spent more than $3 ½ million doing everything from groundwater to surface water assessments, and we’re still not there. This is a monumental task for us in Alabama, and our political leaders need to understand that we need a lot of money to assess the situation before we can start making policy,” he says.

There’s no doubt that it’ll require more funding, says Cook. “Two states that recently completed water sustainability assessments were Colorado and Georgia – Colorado spent more than $15 million on their assessment and Georgia spent more than $30 million. It’ll take funding and effort to get this done,” he says.