“The first barrier is the lack of access to water. Under the riparian system we have for surface water, you have to own the land next to the spring to legally use that water. The other thing is the lack of cheap groundwater.”

The second barrier, he says, is a lack of capital. “In an agricultural system where people have been doing rain-fed farming, there hasn’t been much of an opportunity to build up a lot of capital to invest in irrigation. A lot of farms go back several generations, and it’s almost like they’re literally betting the farm for the next generation if they invest in irrigation, so they’re risk-adverse to making that investment.”

The third thing, says McNider, is that there’s a lot of rented land in Alabama, and it’s difficult to make an investment if you’re not sure what the length of your lease will be.

“Another barrier is the age of farmers. When you talk about making an investment in irrigation that’ll take 15 to 20 years to pay back, a lot of farmers are getting to the age of not wanting to make the long-term investment.”

A fifth barrier is that there’s so little irrigation in the state, farmers don’t have a lot of experience with the infrastructure, he says. “It’s intimidating to see the size and scope of some larger irrigation systems, so I think the lack of experience has kept some farmers from getting into irrigation.”

Programs that have been enacted to expand irrigation in Alabama in a sustainable manner include the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) under the 2008 farm bill and the Alabama Irrigation Tax Incentive bill passed this year by the state legislature.

“There are some things we might have to fine-tune on that latest legislation, but it is the first step in getting some incentives for irrigation.”

The irrigation incentive provides a state income tax credit of 20 percent of the costs of the purchase and installation of irrigation systems. The bill also allows the tax credit on the development of irrigation reservoirs and water wells, in addition to the conversion of fuel-powered systems to electric power. The one-time credit cannot exceed $10,000 per taxpayer, and it must be taken in the year in which the equipment or reservoirs are placed into service.

Is there more Alabama can do, asks McNider, in light of the fact that the governor has stated there is no more money for making investments in industrial incentives?

“We can try to support language in the federal farm bill that provides funding for irrigation infrastructure in the Eastern U.S. The West has been the beneficiary of billions of federal dollars for water infrastructure. The Southeast needs cost-share support for on-farm reservoirs.

“Also, we can make better use of our groundwater, though we don’t have some of the aquifers that are large enough to drive center pivots. But maybe we can do things like using small wells and a reservoir to make better use of the groundwater that we do have.”