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Can irrigation equal dollars for Alabama Farmers, a 40th anniversary APR encore presentation

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Pat Duggins
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The late astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space back in 1982. That was the same year that Alabama Public Radio first started serving our listeners. All through 2022, the APR news team will present encore broadcasts of the best of the best of the best of our stories. That includes this story from 2015. APR spent a year investigating water issues in the state. APR’s Pat Duggins covered the problem caused by a lack of irrigation for Alabama’s agricultural industry. Here’s that story from the APR archives.

The rumbling of tractors means harvest time is coming at the Dee River Ranch near Aliceville. If you want to see it all, you need a truck…

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“We produce corn, soybeans, wheat...we had some wheat this year. We have cattle... timber,” says Annie Dee, who’s run this ten thousand acre farm for twenty six years. “We’re talking with a company that’s trying to develop a bamboo business in the black belt of Alabama,” she adds.

Four years ago, a big change happened. In 2011, Dee decided to give irrigation a chance—but just on a few acres… “We made over one hundred bushel more corn where we had irrigation compared to where we didn’t," says Dee. " So, it didn’t take us very long to figure out, we better get irrigation everywhere that we could.”

The argument that got Dee going came from a cluttered office at the University of Alabama in Huntsville… “Well, it is ironic. Most of my background in mathematics and turbulence and things like that,” says Dr. Dick McNider. He works in a building UAH shares with NASA. McNider teaches atmospheric science. A few years, he began studying rainfall in Alabama and the economics of farming. “We’re down to ten percent of the corn that we planted in 1950, we're down to fifteen to twenty percent of the cotton we grew in 1950,” says MicNider, who blames one habit. He says most Alabama farmers rely on rainfall to water their crops… “Alabama, despite having more water resources than almost any state, lags almost the whole country in the amount irrigated acreage that we have,” he says.

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Specifically, Alabama irrigates about one hundred thousand acres of farmland. Mississippi irrigates over a million acres and Georgia a million and a half more. McNider says competing agriculture states with less rain invested in irrigation. And that, he says, hurt farmers in Alabama…

“Under rain fed conditions, we can’t compete with Iowa and Illinois in terms of soybeans and corn. But, when we irrigate we can beat them in terms of profit,” he says. For example—a rainfed acre of corn normally means one hundred and forty bushels, where an irrigated acre brings in ninety more bushels.  “And in some sense, the one hundred and forty bushels on average for rainfed corn barely covers your expenses,” says McNider. “And so, getting that extra ninety bushels is where your profit is.”

And that brings us back to Annie Dee, who drives us around one of her soybean fields—one without irrigation.

“Here where the water isn’t reaching, the plants are pretty stressed,” says Dee. “They’re yellow, they’re not green like they should be, and they’re going to be limited in their yield.”

Dee’s farm gets rain between November and March. The catch is, her soybean and corn crops grow between April and September when it’s dry. Dee’s answer was to dig her own reservoir. “Okay, at the deepest place, it’s fifty feet deep,” she says. “The average depth if seventeen feet, but the deepest place is fifty feet deep.” The reservoir fills up during the rainy season, and then her irrigation system pumps that water out to her thirsty fields later in the year.

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Supporters of irrigation say that’s fine, but it’s only part of a statewide problem… “It’s not that we don’t have plenty of water, particularly ground water. It’s just that we don’t manage it very well,” says Marlon Cook with the Alabama Geological Survey. He leads a team to find new groundwater sources. One main criticism for irrigation is that a lot of Alabamians can’t use the water. Cook says it’s due to something called Riparian law. It’s a type of British common law that went into effect in Alabama in the late 1800’s… “And that is that if you have land that is directly adjacent to a water source, either groundwater underneath or surface water on your property, you can use it, if you use it reasonably,” says Cook. That raises one obvious question… “What is reasonable use,” he asks.

Riparian law can leave farmers without waterfront property high and dry, so to speak. Critics say landowners who have water rights can’t even give their thirsty landlocked neighbors permission to run a pipe across their property to a lake or stream. Even the State of Alabama says a change may be overdue…

“That’s currently a topic that’s being investigated,” says Lance LeFleur. He’s head of Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management. Le Fleur says support is building to do away with Riparian law. But, it would take complaints from major players to make it happen… “If the situation arises, where the uncertainty of the Riparian system is a negative on industrial development in the state,” says LeFleur. “Then the state would be served by having a formal water policy.”

But, even if state water policy changes, farmers still face another obstacle. That’s the cost of irrigation. Up to one thousand dollars per acre just to get started. Alabama offers tax credits to help. But, Annie Dee says some of her neighbors have been hurt…

“Locally, people have been drilling wells. And sometimes they’re not getting enough pressure, they’re not getting enough gallons a minute to irrigate what they need to irrigate,” says Dee. “So, there’s a risk with that.”

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Still, irrigation has its fans, including smaller operations. Annie Dee farms ten thousand acres. William Kendrick gets by with just four. He lives in Sawyerville, just south of Tuscaloosa. “We’re going to do some sweetpeas, we’re going to do some watermelons—some sugar babies,” says Kendrick. “We’re going to do some more cucumbers, we’re going to put a second group of cucumbers. I said carrots, right? And we may do some small tomatoes, and greens for sure, we’re going to do some greens.” Kendrick was quick to drill a well to irrigate the crops he sells at local farmer’s markets. For him, it just made good business sense… “City water does not grow as fast. For some reason, we just seen it happen. We had a garden up front, and we were putting water from the city, from the county,” he says. “It didn’t grow our plants as fast as our natural water that comes out of the ground.” And, Kendrick paid the one thousand dollar per acre cost of digging his own well and setting up irrigation pipes. He says he couldn’t afford not to.

There may be some hope on the horizon for supporters of irrigation in Alabama. An advisory panel set up by Governor Robert Bentley is looking at better ways to use the state’s water resources. One possible change could apply to Riparian law, and how farmers get access to the state’s rivers and streams.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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