How important is the Ogallala Aquifer to cotton production in the Texas High Plains? Most farmers in this region already know the answer to that question. And, frankly, they don’t want to think about what life would be like if the aquifer ever ran dry.
This massive underground water source – covering 174,000 square miles – is the lifeblood for agriculture in South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.
To say that the aquifer is crucial to High Plains cotton producers doesn’t begin to explain its importance. Without a reliable water source, the landscape would look very different in the area around Lubbock, Texas.
However, nobody can say that this important issue is being neglected. Cotton producers, groundwater conservation districts and the Texas legislature are taking a proactive stance in protecting the aquifer’s water.
Legislature Takes Action
In 2005, the legislature passed a bill that mandates water conservation planning for Texas by requiring Groundwater Management Areas (GMAs) to define desired future conditions (DFCs) within their area.
Simply put, groundwater conservation districts like the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District face the task of looking to the future and defining the amount of groundwater available for future generations in the aquifers they manage.
“This process gives us a chance to lead by example,” says High Plains Water District Manager Jim Conkwright. “We can demonstrate that groundwater conservation districts have the ability to effectively plan and manage groundwater resources.
“By doing so, I am hopeful that we can continue to achieve the economic vitality we enjoy today while ensuring the future of our region.”
The High Plains Water District Board of Directors established a management goal of 50/50 for the district in both GMA 1 and GMA 2 in the Texas Panhandle. This means that the district is working to have 50 percent of the current saturated thickness of the Ogallala Aquifer available for use in 50 years (2060).
“Being good stewards of our groundwater resource is the right thing to do,” says Conkwright. “We can extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer, as well as the economic viability of both GMA areas. This will give us the opportunity to benefit from the advances in science, crop genetics, irrigation technology and other areas.”
Currently, other groundwater conservation districts throughout Texas are working in their respective GMAs to develop DFCs prior to the Sept. 2010 deadline required by statute.
How quickly is the water level dropping in the aquifer?
Annual depth-to-water level measurements made in 2010 in a network of 1,204 privately owned water wells within the High Plains Water District’s 15-county service area indicated an average decline of 0.78 of a foot for a 10-year period (2000-2010) and 0.90 of a foot for a five-year period (2005-2010).
Efforts Paying Off
Most industry observers believe the region is reaping the rewards of an aggressive strategy to manage the Ogallala Aquifer. In fact, Texas AgriLife Extension Service cotton agronomist Randy Boman says High Plains producers have made tremendous strides in water use efficiency.
It can be defined in many ways, but basically, it is the amount of lint produced per acre-inch of water. Critical long-term irrigation research has demonstrated that water use efficiency can effectively be improved, thus making more pounds of cotton per acre-inch of water.
There is some hopeful expectation of future transgenic traits being introduced that would result in additional gains in water use efficiency.
“I would submit that our producers are doing a better job of water use efficiency than any group of producers in the country,” Boman says.
One specific example of High Plains water management is the increase in drip irrigation systems in the region. Boman says the number of cotton acres utilizing drip systems is somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000.
He also points to widespread use of Low Energy Precision Agriculture (LEPA) irrigation systems and farm programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) administered by USDA-NRCS.
Despite a widespread notion that the Ogallala can’t be recharged, Boman says there are events that might have a positive impact on the aquifer.
He contends that heavy rainfall in the High Plains allows water to collect in the shallow playa basins that dot the landscape. Even though the impact is not fully quantified, these basins are likely a source of recharge for the aquifer.
There is also the existence of the Dockum Aquifer, which underlies the Ogallala. This aquifer hasn’t been tapped for water because of its high salt content.
But, in anticipation of producers someday tapping into the Dockum Aquifer, Texas AgriLife Research cotton breeder Jane Dever and predecessor John Gannaway have developed methodology for identification of germplasm that has more tolerance to salinity.
As for how seriously producers view the water situation on the High Plains, most believe they are good stewards.
Producer Steve Newsom of Level-land says most of his farmer friends eagerly embrace technology for “more than just economic gain.”
“We have long-term objectives as farmers,” he says. “Our actions speak pretty loud, in my opinion. We’ll do anything that helps us save water.”
Excellent Track Record
Another example of how High Plains producers have consistently done their part in protecting the aquifer is when the past four decades are studied. Numerous reports from agricultural economists in the 1970s predicted that the Ogallala would be dry, or that irrigation would at least be economically non-viable in much of the region by the year 2000.
Those predictions turned out to be wrong. According to Texas AgriLife irrigation specialist Dana Porter, “advancements in irrigation technology and management, along with improvements in crop genetics, pest and crop management, have kept High Plains agriculture strong.
“Our producers are rapid adopters of technology and are doing an excellent job of managing irrigation in the Ogallala Aquifer region. Consequently, the future looks bright for cotton production on the High Plains.”
Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or firstname.lastname@example.org.