Even if the state doesn’t have money to make a direct investment in irrigation, maybe it can provide loan guarantees and/or tax incentives to farmers who borrow money for irrigation impoundments and associated irrigation infrastructure.

“Loan guarantees may be a near no-cost solution for the state. It would allow farmers to expand irrigation without risking their land. In the end, irrigated land can sustain a higher property tax rate.”

The state also can define water policy that allows conveyance across property boundaries (to non-riparian land) but restricts water withdrawals to times when streams have adequate water, says McNider.

“Access to water has been a major hindrance to expanded irrigation,” he says. “Allowing water to be moved to non-riparian land is key to more farmers having access to water. However, such access requires that limits on withdrawals are in place to protect the downstream user.”

For this to occur, he says, Alabama needs a comprehensive water management tool. “Under the Alabama Irrigation Initiative and follow-on NSF/USDA grant, we have developed, in partnership with the U.S Forest Service, application of the Water Supply Stress Index (WASSI) model to Alabama.

The model, he explains, computes the demand (municipal, irrigation, industrial withdrawals) and the supply (rainfall run-off).

“In the Southeast, we’re using a small amount of the water that’s available. In the West, they’re using almost all of their available water. In Alabama, our streams and watersheds have plenty of available water 90 percent of the time. We can open up the use of this water by pumping from the Tennessee River or the Alabama River.

“If we can have a system in place that would check when the sources are stressed, that would be the only time withdrawals would be restricted. People worry about the cumulative effective of adding large amounts of irrigation, but if we have these management tools, we could actually see when these watersheds are stressed.”

The Alabama Irrigation Initiative has asked state legislatures if it can form a Scientific and Economic Advisory Committee to develop a framework for legislation for the 2013 Legislative Session which would define appropriate economic incentives for expanding irrigation in the state, address water transfer, and assess limits on withdrawal.

The committee, says McNider, would be made up of senior members of the Alabama Irrigation Initiative, agricultural representatives appointed by Alabama Farmers Federation, environmental representatives, and other members.