Twenty-five Alabama farmers are on the leading edge of new federal water policy to build the 21st century version of the rain barrel.
Driven by a fear of drought and the expensive taxpayer bailouts that follow, the government this year started subsidizing the construction of small, on-farm reservoirs in places that have water to spare during rainy winters and thirsty crops in the drier summers.
It is a policy born in Alabama. University researchers and lawmakers who wanted simply to help places like the Southeast irrigate their way out of the crisis of drought teamed up to get the idea into law.
The first round of funding sent $1.58 million from Washington to Alabama, and 180 farmers applied for the financial assistance; 25 were picked.
Chilton County’s Arlie Powell already knows where he’ll dig his storage pond, probably in the next few weeks.
The nursery and fruit farm he operates with his son won a contract of just more than $25,000 from the new program, which the Powells are required to match dollar-for-dollar. By this winter, he’ll be drawing from a nearby creek when it’s swelled by rains and piping it into the new reservoir. Come summer, the stash will sustain his blackberries, blueberries, figs, apples, muscadines, kiwis, Asian pears and oriental persimmons.
And what of the monthly water bill from the county, his previous irrigation source? It will get slashed. More importantly, he’ll have a more reliable and predictable water source.
"It’s always that fear in the back of the mind. What if something happens like happened in Birmingham, and they start cutting off the nurseries?" Powell said. "People come first and they should, but if you’re a farming operation and they cut your water off, you’re in bad shape."
The new Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, created in the 2008 farm bill, kicked off its first year with $58 million for 63 conservation and water quality improvement projects in 21 states around the country. Alabama was added late to the list and received less money than was requested, so state officials scrambled to get the competition up and running before the end of the 2009 fiscal year.
Proposed projects from Alabama farmers were ranked based on how much water would be saved, whether there are protections in place against runoff, how efficiency would be improved and whether environmental impact on wetlands would be minimal, said Steve Musser, the assistant state conservationist for programs with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Source: The Birmingham News