Richard McNider has spent years studying how the U.S. Southwest and parts of the Midwest marshaled their water resources to build the world’s most efficient food production system.

But McNider, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, has also seen how the long-term implications of climate change coupled with overuse in these regions, particularly in the Southwest, threaten these water resources and with it the future of American agriculture.  

Sooner or later something has got to give, he contends.  And when it does, he says the part of the country that has remained on the periphery of agricultural production — the eastern United States and especially the Southeast — should prepare to fill some of the void caused by these stresses.

Otherwise, prolonged drought in the Southwest could result in millions of acres being permanently lost to American agriculture, according to McNider, who heads the Alabama University Irrigation Initiative, a coalition of professors who are working to articulate a comprehensive agricultural irrigation plan for the state.

“The Southwest is especially vulnerable because they rely totally on irrigation in that arid climate,” McNider says.

In recent years, the sources of this irrigation are under increasing pressure not only from growing population needs but also from environmentalists, who demand that rivers once drained or dammed up to serve agriculture should be allowed to flow again into the ocean.

Wesley Porter, who recently was hired by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System to serve as its statewide irrigation specialist, witnessed the environmental stresses firsthand while working as an agricultural engineer for Oklahoma State University.

“In certain regions of Oklahoma, they have not had a full season of irrigation water available for the past two years and potentially won’t have it for this upcoming season,” Porter says. “The reservoir from which irrigation water is withdrawn is below the allowable release capacity, which effectively means that producers are out of water.”

A similar crisis is playing out on the high plains of Texas.

“Two things are occurring: Producers are contending with reduced water not only caused by the draw but also by the extreme heat,” he says. “Even without draw down, the extreme heat and low humidity has prevented them from irrigating entire crops.”