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THURSDAY, MAY 31, 2007
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State needs more wells to predict droughts

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com · 340-2443

State officials said last year that a high-tech well installed in Lawrence County would help farmers by predicting droughts and determining how long they would last.

So why weren’t farmers aware of this year’s severe conditions in time to choose a better-suited crop than corn?

Because the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Geological Survey, the two agencies monitoring the system, need about 20 more wells to provide accurate data, said Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Ron Sparks.

The state built five wells last year, one at each corner of Alabama and another near Mobile. Using a wireless system, researchers can retrieve groundwater data from the sites and use that information to predict when a drought might occur and how long it will last.

The well in Lawrence County, near the Franklin County line, began operating July 1.

But using data from just one, or all five, wells could be misleading when determining statewide information, said Sparks.

“We’re getting some good data, but we’re not getting all we need because we can only pinpoint five locations,” he said. “The water table is something you have to monitor statewide.”

Sparks said the state plans to install 20 more wells but has not chosen sites yet.

Once officials have installed enough wells to provide accurate data, said Sparks, they will be able to release the information to Alabama farmers.

The wells cost about $10,000 each and are mostly funded by the Department of Agriculture.

“It’ll help them decide what crops they can manage and what pesticides they need to use if they have less water,” he said.

“Those are the types of things farmers need to know for planning. If we had the 25 wells we plan to have, we’d be able to provide that, but we’d hate to give wrong or incomplete information.” Sparks said his office plans to release initial findings from the drought monitor system next week.

In the meantime, North Alabama farmers are experiencing the worst drought on record in 140 years. Morgan, Limestone, Lawrence and 34 other counties are under severe drought warnings. The dry weather is especially unfortunate for cotton farmers who switched much of their acreage this year to corn — a crop that is much less resistant to drought conditions — in order to take advantage of high prices caused by a booming biofuels industry.

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