Spurred by a statewide tax incentive, irrigation is expanding rapidly in Alabama, with or without a comprehensive water plan.

“It may come faster than we thought – where we have agriculture competing with the public water supply in many areas,” says Marlon Cook, director of the Groundwater Assessment Program for the Geological Survey of Alabama.

Cook was one of several presenters at the recent Alabama Water Policy Symposium held at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. The symposium – focusing on irrigation – was one of a series being held statewide to gather stakeholder input into the ongoing efforts to develop a comprehensive water management plan for the state.

“At the Geological Survey, we take information requests,” says Cook. “Folks call us who want information on where they should drill a well. We get a lot of requests, but up until two years ago, less than 20 percent of our information requests were coming from farmers. Now it’s probably 70 percent.”

Each week, says Cook, he gets “one or two” requests from farmers for a well location. “I certainly can’t blame them for doing it. I wouldn’t farm if I couldn’t irrigate – it’s a gamble. We’re going to have to get a handle on this, and I think it’s going to have to happen quickly.”

Alabama Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Glen Zorn agrees that a plan needs to happen quickly, but not before water-use assessments are completed.

“How are we going to fix things until we know what we’ve got?” asks Zorn. “We’ve been working in southeast Alabama since 1990-1991. We spent more than $3 ½ million doing everything from groundwater to surface water assessments, and we’re still not there. This is a monumental task for us in Alabama, and our political leaders need to understand that we need a lot of money to assess the situation before we can start making policy,” he says.

There’s no doubt that it’ll require more funding, says Cook. “Two states that recently completed water sustainability assessments were Colorado and Georgia – Colorado spent more than $15 million on their assessment and Georgia spent more than $30 million. It’ll take funding and effort to get this done,” he says.

No legislative action expected until 2015

Alabama State Sen. Arthur Orr, who helped sponsor 2012 legislation granting farmers a tax break for installing new irrigation, says he wouldn’t expect the state’s legislature to seriously consider a comprehensive water plan until 2015 at the earliest.

“We know that 2014 is an election year, and we know that politicians are more interested in campaigning than they are in passing legislation, particularly controversial legislation. I wouldn’t expect the legislature to consider water policy next year, even if we get the recommendations by December,” says Orr.

Gov. Robert Bentley has asked the Alabama Water Agencies Working Group (AWAWG) to present policy and legislative options for a comprehensive water plan to him by Dec. 1 of this year.

“The legislature convenes in January and we’re gone by late April, so I doubt that taking up such a monumental piece of legislation with so many players is likely to happen in the 2014 session. I see it happening more in the 2015 session as far as any consideration along those lines. The legislature is going to have to have considerable input from all stakeholders,” says Orr.

The original irrigation tax credit legislation became law in 2012. It allows farmers to claim a maximum tax credit of $10,000 for the installation of irrigation equipment or construction of reservoirs, ponds or wells. Farmers can claim the irrigation tax credit over five years from the date a qualifying project is completed.

With regard to any surface water, a river or stream cannot be below 8,000 cubic feet per second for a farmer to irrigate from it, says Orr, who represents north Alabama. “We placed a limitation in order for the grower to receive the tax credit. Maybe that provides a baseline for us to consider going forward towards a wholesale water policy.”

A framework for monitoring water use in Alabama is already in place, says Tom Littlepage of the Alabama Office of Water Resources. “Currently in Alabama, each water system in the state is required to register with our agency in terms of identifying what water they’re using, where they’re getting it from – whether from surface or ground water – or whether they buy it from other users. All irrigation users who have a capacity to pump more than about 70 gallons per minute are required to register.

“If you have that fixed capacity, whether you intend to use it all or not, you’re required by law to register with us. We issue certificates of use, collect data annually, and we’re the central repository for the state for this information,” says Littlepage.

Alabama is in a unique position to learn from the mistakes of its neighboring states, says Mitch Reid of the Alabama Rivers Alliance.

“When we make panic-based decisions, we make bad decisions, and frankly a lot our neighboring states have reached the point to where they have had to make water policy,” says Reid. “Alabama can learn from what its neighboring states have done because they have developed their policies under the gun. We have the opportunity to do this right. We have been having this discussion for a long time, since at least the 1990s.”