Southern agriculture facing water management crises

Many areas of the Southeast found out the hard way the damage that can be done when the drought of the century occurs. Despite the horrific effects drought has on crop yields, the threat to the future is even greater. The problem is not a shortage of water, the problem is proper management of water resources.

Jim Hairston, an Auburn University professor who works on a number of regional and national water management initiatives says farmers are faced with a difficult decision when it comes to adding irrigation to their farming operation. In addition to it being an expensive proposition to buy and operate irrigation equipment, there is no certainty that water will be legally available to the grower.

Don Rodekohr, a natural resources specialist at Auburn University and an expert on water policy, says just having a stream on your property or even access to underground aquifers doesn't insure short-term, much less long-term access to water.

“A person downstream or someone who believes he is being negatively affected by the use of water from aquifers can complain, and the farmer can be denied legal access to the water. This lack of legal standards in most Southeastern states adds to the risk farmers face in growing a crop,” Rodekohr says.

Once farmers get into a drought situation there is little they can do to alleviate the situation, unless they have irrigation. Installing irrigation can be an expensive insurance policy.

The 2006-07 drought brought the reality of water availability into the mainstream press. Water issues with the City of Atlanta over use of water in the Chattahoochee River and with Charlotte, N.C., over water usage from the Catawba River made people more aware of the need for better water management.

Farmers are caught in a no-man's land in which the general public believes on-farm irrigation is responsible for a lack of water in major cities. Hairston says that's far from the truth.

“Each American uses about 150 gallons of water per day, but most of that goes back into the water supply. A city like Atlanta uses huge amounts of water, but only a fraction of what native vegetation uses — and we don't get that water back,” the water expert says.

He explains that if you look at identical size grids of thousands of acres, one of which includes metropolitan Atlanta and one that includes a rural section of Georgia, the rural section would consume considerably more water. There is a big difference between water use and water consumption, though the general public tends to lump the two together, he says.

Western states have closely monitored water use by both cities and agriculture for a number of years. In contrast, for the most part, states east of the Mississippi River have taken the attitude that there is plenty of water. The most recent drought opened the eyes of a lot of people and more and more eastern states are looking at ways to better allocate water during periods of drought, which means adopting what has come to be known as “western water policy.”

Rodekohr says a good policy for Southeastern farmers to implement on their farms is some system of measuring how much water they are taking out of a stream or well to apply to crops, and how much of that water is getting back into the water system. If they have that information, they will be ahead of the game in water management.

Farmers have a strong case to present for water use. To produce food crops, farmers have to have water. If they can quantify how much water they need on a yearly basis, then water managers can allocate water based on their needs. From a public relations standpoint, farmers then become wise users of water rather than over-users as many in the public sector now consider them.

For a farmer who started out 20 years ago with 1,000 acres of cropland, doubled that with Roundup Ready and other technology, then added another 1,000 acres to make money on low profit margins, the options for drought mitigation are tenuous at best.

The best drought management plan calls for some way to bank water for future use. On-farm storage has drawn a great deal of attention, but constructing ponds suitable for holding water accumulated in peak rainy times for use in drought times is costly and difficult to do, regardless of costs.

A pilot project at the Tennessee Valley Research and Extension Center in Belle Mina, Ala., demonstrated that on-farm storage can be done. The 11-acre lake was lined with plastic and filled by overflow water from a nearby creek. Losing water, despite the liner, costs large amounts of money, which most farmers could not afford, but the water storage facility is still used to irrigate much of the cropland at the research station.

Hairston contends that water storage should be done at the state or national level. Alabama alone has over 100 large dams built for flood control that could easily be adapted to water storage facilities.

Like most Southeastern states, Hairston says, Alabama has placed much more emphasis on managing too much water than managing too little water. For example, the water released from behind a system of TVA dams on the Tennessee River for their winter flood control cycle, he says, could be pumped to other off-river storage sites across north Alabama and would provide enough water to irrigate over 500,000 acres of farmland.

Similar flood aversion dams are located in every Southeastern state, yet billions of gallons of water that could provide valuable off-stream benefits pass through these states on its way to the Atlantic Ocean with little economic or environmental benefit.

From an environmental standpoint, Hairston says, capturing water in the rainy season for use in the dry season actually adds water to the system by conserving water in the freshwater state. “Currently, the water passes through these states and is never used. If we capture it and use it, some percentage of this water goes back into the system and actually increases the total availability during the dry periods of the year,” he says.

At the farm level, having a 15- to 20-acre site suitable for a water storage pond is only part of the equation. Soil type and depth are critical factors. In most cases, such a water-holding pond would lose about 3 feet of water per year. To provide any water for irrigation, pond depth would need to be greater than 3 feet, which may be feasible, depending on how much rainfall is accumulated during the year.

If a farmer has land that is capable of trapping runoff water, without any need for pumping water or redirecting water to fill a storage pond, then that farmer has a big advantage from the legal standpoint, Rodekohr emphasizes.

The other way to bank water is through long-term soil conservation practices, primarily no-till farming. Over a period of seven to eight years, continuous no-till farming can increase the soil's water holding capacity enough to offset some of the effects of even long-term drought.

Technical problems associated with water storage and use is miniscule compared to potential legal problems associated with water use. The reality of the situation is that taking water from streams at peak flow times for storage will likely add water to the overall water system, but if someone downstream complains about the amount of water a farmer is pulling from a stream, the farmer could be left with a very expensive holding pond and no way to fill it.

Hairston says the ultimate answer to the farmer's plight of planning for drought comes from a multitude of practices.

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