Massive federal subsidies that helped move much of America's farm production into Western deserts also contributed substantially to the poverty and economic deprivation that now plague large portions of the rural South.

“Irrigated farming in the West was very nearly the death knell of southern agriculture," says Richard McNider, a professor of atmospheric science at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). “Alabama alone has lost more than 10 million acres of row-crop farmland since 1950, when the major Western water projects came on line."

Federal and state incentives to lure water-intensive portions of that farming away from Western states and back to Alabama and other Southeastern states could reduce rural poverty while providing a cost effective solution to on-going water problems in several western states, according to three scientists from Alabama.

They presented their proposals recently at a special meeting of the American Meteorological Society in San Diego.

“Southern farmers who depended on rain to water their crops simply could not compete with the sustained productivity of irrigated western agriculture,” says McNider, who grew up in a farming community in south Alabama. “This loss of agriculture devastated rural economies in the South. Many formerly prosperous southern farming areas now have Third World levels of persistent poverty, infant mortality and education.

“It is ironic that federal and state governments have had to develop costly programs to fight poverty which had much of its roots in federal western water projects 30 to 50 years earlier.”

The massive shift of agriculture from east to west was heavily subsidized. The federal government spent billions of dollars on dams, canals and piping to provide low-cost water to farmers in Western deserts.

Federal policies that promoted western farming at the expense of eastern agriculture had critics even at that time. In 1949, Earl Butz, an economist who later served as President Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, asked, “How do we justify subsidizing agricultural production in the west and, at the same time, require the midwest farmer to cut back output — output, moreover, that could be produced more efficiently and without subsidized water?”

In addition to the wholesale destruction of the economies in many Southern farm communities, the cost of irrigating western agriculture has been much higher than what the federal government paid initially. Some rivers have been completely drained, destroying wetlands and fish populations. Salt and selenium buildups in high-evaporation areas are poisoning large areas. Groundwater is being pumped out faster than it can be replaced by natural processes.

In California alone, the rapidly growing population is forcing the state to consider multi-billion dollar programs to provide water to millions of additional households, while 85 percent of the state's water is still allocated to agriculture. All of these problems have been compounded by a five-year drought.

“The country can't afford to continue throwing money at the water shortages in California and other western states,” says McNider. “The taxpayers simply can't afford to go down the path of increasingly expensive solutions to these water problems when the easiest solution is to reduce consumption by moving some agriculture back to the east.”

“The paradigm for the 20th century was to move water to empty land, where farming could be established,” says John Christy, a professor of atmospheric science at UAH. “This led to colossal projects that move water hundreds of miles to be put on deserts. We believe the paradigm for the 21st Century should be to return agriculture to the east, where there is enough water to make agriculture sustainable.

“California could solve its water problems for the next 30 years — and still have water left over to restore some of its rivers — simply by giving up cotton and replacing it with crops that need less water but produce higher profits.”

While McNider, Christy and James Hairston, a professor of agronomy and soils at Auburn University, are continuing their research, a preliminary proposal includes two major items:

• A program through the states, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to encourage farmers in the west to give up low-value crops but to water intensive crops.

• Federal and state support for developing farm irrigation in eastern states, using ponds and reservoirs to capture and hold abundant winter water until it is needed in the summer.

“Natural rainfall in Alabama and other Southern states is almost adequate,” says McNider. “But it almost isn't enough when you are competing with western farmers who always get the water that they need.”

A recent study found that on average, farm production in Alabama is reduced by drought one year in three.

“Because of natural rainfall, farmers in the South only need an average of 6 to 9 inches of water a year to irrigate cotton or corn,” McNider says. “This isn't much compared to the 4 feet of water dumped every year on cotton and corn fields in Arizona and California, but it is important to have that water at the right times.”

Because less water is needed to irrigate crops in Southern states, the cost of irrigation would also be less. The proposed $1.7 billion Temperance Flat Dam in the San Joaquin Basin near Fresno, Calif., would add up to 750,000 acre-feet of additional storage and irrigate up to 190,000 acres of farmland in California’s Central Valley.

“In Alabama, the same $1.7 billion could add approximately 3 million acre-feet of storage and support 4 to 6 million acres of irrigated land,” says McNider. “This sounds like a much better deal for the taxpayers.”