BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Nearly $1.6 million in federal funds is flowing to 25 Alabama farmers in a project aimed at creating small, on-farm reservoirs to help drought-plagued regions like the Southeast irrigate parched crops.
The 25 were chosen from some 180 farmers who applied for the financial assistance, which the farmers are required to match dollar-for-dollar.
Arlie Powell, a Chilton County nursery and fruit farmer who won a contract of about $25,000, said the storage pond he will create should draw water through pipes from a nearby creek when rain raises the creek's level. By next summer, water from his new reservoir will sustain his fruit crop, including blackberries, blueberries, figs and apples, while reducing his monthly water bill from the county.
Plus, he will have a reliable source of water if drought returns.
"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 told The Birmingham News in a story Tuesday. "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, but state officials got the program in place before the 2009 fiscal year ended in September.
The 25 farmers chosen were ranked 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.
"The whole mission of the cost-share program is to demonstrate the new and innovative concepts on agricultural lands that producers will widely adopt," Musser told the News. "Their neighbors will look at what they're doing, and environmental groups will look at it."
The maximum funding provided per farm was $100,000, and the 25 farmers chosen are a diverse group spread around the state with operations of many sizes.
Along with filling new reservoirs, the farmers will have other options, including capturing normal runoff in the watershed and improving the efficiency of their irrigation systems.
Musser said stream levels will be monitored to assure environmental grops that the irrigation is not as damaging as they think it could be.