“Whether we have climate change or not, the western region is very likely to return to the ‘normal’ climate of the previous 500 years, which is much drier than the climate of the past 100 years.

“In either case, the impact on our food, fiber and now energy security will be significant. Now is the time to start thinking about how we deal with these issues, instead of waiting for the crisis that we can see coming at us.”

The research team includes climate and weather modeling experts at UAHuntsville, ecologists at The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, agricultural economists at the University of Georgia, crop modelers at Washington State University, water policy experts at California State University at Long Beach, and hydrology modelers at the U.S. Forest Service.

The study’s goals include determining how much surface water is available for irrigation, and how much is needed for optimum farm production. The team will look at the environmental impact of taking water out of local ecological systems and whether large-scale irrigation can be sustained over long periods of time.

Several factors in addition to climate change may be coming together that will make irrigation-assisted farming in the Southeast more economically attractive, McNider said. Rising fuel costs are raising the price of shipping across the country fruits and vegetables that once were raised east of the Mississippi River. The growing demand for alternative fuels, especially ethanol and biodiesel, means droughts or flooding in the Midwest might cause drastic swings in prices for both food and gasoline in the future.

“We have made ourselves vulnerable to drought in the Midwest, at the same time we deal with almost inevitable water shortages in the West,” McNider said.