AMS Forum: Living with a Limited Water Supply


Bringing agriculture back to water - a solution for the 21st century

Richard T. McNider, University of Alabama in Huntsville, Huntsville, AL; and J. R. Christy and J. E. Hairston

Irrigated farming in the West was the death-knell of Southern agriculture. Alabama as an example has lost over 10 million acres of row crop farm land since 1950 when the major western water projects (and Ogallala pumping) came on line. Historically, commodity prices in the East were based on a system where farmers might lose substantial fractions of their crops two or three years out of five due to drought but made up for this during good years. Southern farmers simply could not compete with the sustained level of productivity of Western irrigated agriculture. This loss of the agriculture devastated rural economies in the South. Many areas are now third world in terms of persistent poverty, infant mortality and education.

It is ironic that with all the surface water Alabama and the Southeast had available that they did not participate more in irrigated agriculture. As an example New Mexico supports a thriving agricultural system from the Rio Grande near Las Cruces with an average annual flow of near 1 million acre-ft. The Alabama River alone in the southern part of the State has 10 million acre-ft in the driest year on record with average flows near 25 million acre-ft. Part of the reason for not irrigating is that Southern farmers can almost make it without irrigation - but almost is not enough. In a slow agonizing death farmers eventually went out of business

If the recent drought in the West is truly the norm (as paleoclimatologists tell us), there will be a contraction of agriculture in the West. Urbanites and their water needs (and votes) will eventually trump farmers. Additionally, other issues such as soil poisoning and river restoration initiatives make agriculture non-sustainable in many areas. This loss of agriculture in the U.S. will have to be made up elsewhere. It could go offshore. However, we believe that this is not in the best interest of the food/fiber security for the U.S. or in the best interest of the global environment. Agriculture is not benign in its environmental impact. While the U.S. has agricultural environmental issues most foreign countries (especially third world countries) will not take the same precautions relative to pesticides, herbicides, erosion and water pollution that the U.S. will.

We believe the more natural agriculture system for the U.S. to practice is irrigated assisted rain-fed agriculture in the East and not desert irrigated agriculture in the West. Because of natural rainfall in the South it only needs on average between 6-9" of irrigated water for cotton and corn rather than the four feet in Arizona and California. This irrigated water, however, is critical by being available at the right time for maximum production. Non-irrigated corn in Alabama produces less than 60-80 bushels per acre while 250 bushels per acre can be had with irrigation. With irrigation crops can be fertilized heavier and planted more densely without concern for burning up the crops if rains don't come. Thus, production is increased even during wet years when the irrigation systems are rarely used.

There is a tremendous disparity in the amount of water used between Western and Eastern states. Alabama and Georgia use only a few per cent of the water that run off their states while California and Arizona use well more than they receive through ground water pumping and river imports. Irrigation can be practiced in the South using only a fraction of the available water by catching more winter water in new on-farm and small reservoirs and using water in existing reservoirs.

A holistic program for U.S. agriculture would be for the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Reclamation to establish programs for farmers in the West to give up crops like cotton and corn by buying their water rights or as for Imperial Valley farmers requiring they sell their water to urban areas. ( We note that Western farmers seem to come out pretty well when they go out of business and sell the federal water - Southern farmers driven out of business by this same federal water got nothing) . For those farmers (or their son's or daughters) who want continue to farm cotton or corn after giving up their water, an incentive and relocation program could be designed to encourage farmers to move their farming operations to the South by providing water and land. This might be considered analogous to the water and land incentives given to encourage immigration to the West in the last century.

In the long-term such a program would be the most efficient for the Nation as a whole - it is sustainable and cost effective. California will have to spend billions of dollars in the next ten to twenty years just to keep pace with increased use (this is not even considering the scenario that dry is the norm). A large amount of this would be asked of the federal government. Calfornia could solve its water problems for the next 30 years and have water left over for river restoration simply by giving up cotton. If this cotton production were moved to Alabama, it would invigorate the economies of the poorest parts of the State and relieve the State and federal government of millions of dollars in welfare and other payments for these depressed areas.

In summary - the paradigm for the 20th century was to take water to agriculture. This lead to colossal water projects in the West that moved water hundreds of miles to be put on to deserts and the ultimate relocation of agriculture from the East. These projects were fostered by the belief that any water making it to the sea was wasted water and resulted in great harm to natural river systems, fisheries and estuaries. We believe that the paradigm for the 21st century should be to return agriculture to the East where it is susstainable.

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Session 2, global socio-political-economical dimensions of water, including the linkages between human development, food production and water resources
Tuesday, 11 January 2005, 11:00 AM-12:00 PM

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