Abundance, Droughts and Floods

Great bounty is the median measure of Alabama’s water supply. But a lot depends on where and when the rain falls.

ABOVE UAH professor John Christy is state climatologist for Alabama. Photo by Dennis Keim

During the hot, dry days of summer, when some drought-ridden municipalities restrict water usage and warn against burning brush, it can seem like the state of Alabama just doesn’t get the rainfall it used to get. But that assumption would be incorrect. The state has actually experienced a gradual increase in rainfall over the years. Today, Alabama soaks up an average of 55 inches of rainfall per year, about four inches more than in the 1890s, according to Alabama State Climatologist John Christy, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

“Compared with other parts of the country, Alabama receives good rain on average in every month of the year, though less in the fall, ” Christy says. “In general, we receive 55 inches, and about 22 inches, or 40 percent, runs off into the rivers that make Alabama a water-rich state. The rest is stored in groundwater or recycled by our forests and other vegetation.”

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Highs and Lows

On average, Alabama receives slightly more annual rainfall than it did a century ago, but the state has certainly experienced its share of too much or too little precipitation. Times of drought affect all areas of Alabama on occasion, but not usually at the same time — which allows the state’s rivers and lakes to maintain healthy water levels most of the time.

“Every part of the state experiences drought at about the same level, but rarely does the entire state fall into the worst drought category, ” Christy says. “The drought of 2007 was the last time virtually all of the state was in some level of serious drought.”

In fact, the drought of 2007 was the worst statewide drought during the April to September growing season since the state began keeping official records in 1895. The second most severe drought in the state occurred in 1898, and the third worst statewide drought was in 1925, the year of Alabama’s hottest temperature.

During the summer of 1925, “the Tennessee River was so low, you could drive a car across it, ” Christy says. “Earlier, in 1840, there are reports that there was so little rain that the Black Warrior River was virtually dry, resulting in a great fish kill.”

Other years since 1950 that ranked among the top 10 most severe droughts in the state included 2000, 1954 and 1986.

Farmers lament the droughts that keep their crops from growing and dry up water sources for livestock, but too much rain can be just as detrimental. Alabama has seen its share of rainfall challenges at both ends of the spectrum. The wettest year on record was 1975, followed by 2003. The 1970s brought intensely wet conditions, with four years during that decade (1975, 1973, 1976 and 1979) included among the top 10 wettest years on Alabama record books, Christy says.

In some cases, the extra rainfall develops into flood conditions. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Alabama River near Montgomery crested at 160.6 feet in April 1886, “which was likely the biggest flooding there since settlement in the early 1800s, ” Christy says.

In south Alabama, hurricanes — not just rainfall — can cause extreme flooding. Some of the largest floods on record in south Alabama resulted from Mobile-area hurricanes in September 1906 and July 1916. Later, in August 1969, Hurricane Camille “gave a glancing blow to Alabama, but caused flooding from the storm surge, ” Christy says.

Elba, located in Coffee County near Enterprise, is prone to flooding, according to Christy. Heavy rains fell over several days in February and March 1929, including up to 30 inches in Elba, leading to standing water of up to 10 feet. Thousands of people were stranded in Elba for three days. In April 1938, another rainstorm left about 3, 000 people homeless in the Elba area. And in March 1990, the Pea River flooded Elba, forcing 6, 000 people to leave their homes.

But more northern areas of the state are not exempt from flooding. In February and March 1961, the Alabama and Black Warrior Rivers flooded. And in north Alabama, “folks still talk about March 1973, when more than 50, 000 acres of Tennessee Valley farms were under water, and the modern stream flow record was set at Florence, ” Christy says.

The Economic Power of Water

Despite the occasional highs and lows, Alabama experiences a healthy amount of rainfall and is a water-rich state. And in a society in which water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource, access to plenty of water can be a tool for economic growth.

For example, Alabamians consume less than 1 percent of the water that flows through the state. That’s “a remarkably low number when you realize desert states like Arizona consume 100 percent of their meager surface water resources, ” Christy says.

While rainfall, or a lack of it, obviously affects farmers and the agricultural industry, it also plays a role in a number of other industries. A wide variety of industries depend on water to fill lakes and rivers for transportation, such as navigation to the port in Mobile, Christy says. The electrical power industry, on which every other industry depends, requires water for cooling. Others require continual, dependable access to water for manufacturing and mining, such as the pulp and paper industry, steel fabrication and coal and natural gas production.

In Alabama, recreation is another important industry that relies on a healthy water resource to support fishing, golfing, canoeing, rafting, sailing, nature education and other activities. In addition, “homeowners love to have waterfront property, so the real estate industry is vested in meeting that demand, ” Christy says. “They also desire green, healthy landscaping around homes and businesses, which requires watering during dry spells.”

Because Alabama is a water-rich state, it has a competitive advantage compared to overcrowded, drought-ridden states that can’t supply the natural resources many industries need.

“We haven’t yet found all of the ways to use water for environmentally sustainable economic development, ” Christy says. “This puts our state in a good position to recruit new development opportunities, which would have more difficulty elsewhere accessing a secure supply of water.”

Nancy Jackson and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.

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