Irrigation has had a bad reputation for destroying river and stream ecosystems, but the different interests in Alabama are working together in the state develop a water plan that’ll protect water resources, says Richard McNider, distinguished professor emeritus in atmospheric and mathematical sciences at UAH.

“Alabama is one of those places where we almost have enough water to make a crop,” says McNider. “But the statistics show that if you’re almost making it in business, then you’re really going out of business, and that is what has happened here over the past 50 years.”

Today, Alabama farmers are planting about 10 percent of the corn acres that they planted in the 1950s, he says. “Corn has been disappearing from the state, and we’re growing just 20 percent of the cotton that we grew in the 1950s.”

The fundamental problem, he adds, is that Alabama doesn’t have the deep water-holding soils of the Midwest.

“They have 8 feet of topsoil, but we have to get rainfall to make a crop. In 1925, a farmer in Alabama got nearly four times for a bushel of corn what an Illinois farmer would get. As long as farmers in Alabama were competing with themselves and local markets, they were okay. But when transportation opened up, the Midwest began shipping its corn to the South, and we were not competitive.

“Now, we’ve ended up with a system where almost 90 percent of our corn is grown in a relatively small area of the Midwest. This puts us in jeopardy, and this became evident last year when there was a drought in the region,” says McNider.

Alabama is a grain-consuming state, barging in huge amounts of corn and soybeans for the poultry industry.

“We simply can’t compete with farmers who are irrigated in the West and Midwest. The government made great investments in Western irrigation.”

Irrigation is a conservation practice, says McNider, because without it, all of the energy invested in a crop is wasted.

“In the West, they need 3 to 4 feet of water to make a crop. Here, we need only 6 to 9 inches of water. In fact, our system is more of an irrigation-assisted one where we get most of water from the rain. If we don’t have a plan, it’ll be like the ‘wild West,’ and we don’t want to repeat their problems.”