Fall and winter rainfall has left most Southwest farmers with adequate moisture to plant and irrigate 2004 crops, but in-season weather patterns will determine production potential and long-term effect on aquifers.

“In any particular year, in-season drought will demand more pumpage for irrigation,” says Comer Tuck, with the Texas Water Development Board in Austin. Pumping a lot of water out of an already declining aquifer contributes to the decline.

“Most areas of Texas will have enough water to irrigate in 2004,” Tuck says. “The effects on the water table, however, will be worse if we have another dry year. We can meet demand this year, but it could be hard on the aquifer.”

Tuck says some areas, around San Angelo and Lubbock, for instance, typically run out or have limited supplies of water in mid-season. “The aquifer at San Angelo is shallow,” he says.

Tuck says the Ogallala has been declining for years and continues, “though at a reduced rate in some areas. We've seen some improvement,” he says.

That improvement is only a reduction in the rate of decline, not a recharge. “We're not certain at what rate or if the Ogallala recharges,” he says. He credits improved irrigation efficiency, rain over parts of the High Plains, and a switch to alternate crops, cotton instead of corn, for instance, to slowing the decline.

Guy Fipps, newly appointed director of the Irrigation Technology Center at College Station, says the state will see little change “in the overall availability of groundwater. He says the area of the Ogallala south of the Canadian River continues to decline while the area to the north, around Amarillo, “is in fine shape.

“Other aquifers across the state have seen declines but the Edwards (in the hill country around Austin and San Antonio) has recharged. The Edwards is in good shape, mainly because of rainfall. The Ogallala and others, however, do not respond quickly to either drought or rainfall.

He sys the aquifer under Frio and West Texas. “We saw no dramatic changes last year, however.”

Fipps says short-term, water should be adequate. “But the future is serious.”

Jo Jo White, manager of the Hidalgo and Cameron Counties Irrigation District Number Nine in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and also a board member of the International Boundary and Water Commission, says water supply for irrigation is better than it has been in a decade.

“We had a good amount of rain last fall and that helped us out for this year,” White says. “We now have more reserves in the Falcon and Amistad reservoirs than at any time in the past ten years. But that came from Mother Nature, not Mexico.”

“We got a lot of rain and a lot of moisture into the watershed. It was a good year for rain, but Mexico still has not fulfilled its obligations under the 1944 U.S. Mexico Water Treaty. Under that treaty, the United States supplies Mexico 1 million acre-feet of water per year. That water goes from Lake Meade mostly into the Baja Region. Mexico is required to supply 350,000 acre-feet of water from Rio Grande tributaries and reservoirs to the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Currently, Mexico is 1.3 million acre-feet in arrears.

“Since Vicente Fox has been in office (President of Mexico), he has committed to providing the 350,000 acre feet per year,” White says. “But he has not addressed the deficit.”

White says irrigation district managers are happy to get the annual allocation. “That water will help us, but at the end of the growing season, we'll be right back where we started if we don't get rain.”

White says Mexico received substantial rainfall last fall and increased water supplies in storage. “They could make a substantial reduction in their water debt.”

White says the U.S. Government will have an ideal opening this spring to pressure Mexico into honoring its treaty obligations. “We don't expect them to repay the whole thing, but they could reduce the debt by one-third or one-half. That would be significant and would help us in the Valley.”

Scott Orr, with the High Plains Underground Water District Number One, says recent rainfall put moisture in the soil and smiles on the faces of a lot of High Plains farmers.

“The situation has improved considerably,” Orr says. “Some areas received in excess of 3.5 inches of precipitation during mid-January. Still, very dry conditions prevail in a few counties along the Texas/New Mexico border where they missed those January rains.” The National Weather Service in Lubbock reports that Lubbock was about 1.5 inches ahead of normal for the month of January.

“This is a wonderful respite from the 8.83 inches recorded in 2003 by NWS in Lubbock,” Orr says. “The lack of precipitation during the 2003 crop season left soils in a less than favorable moisture condition in an area south of Lubbock and extending into the Texas Panhandle.”

The High Plains Underground Water Conservation District Number One conducts a yearly soil moisture survey of the 15 member counties in the district. That information will be released in March.

“The estimated increase in agricultural production resulting from one inch of timely precipitation on the four major crops grown in the District can add a market value of as much as $81 million dollars with a regional impact of approximately $283 million,” Orr says.

Oklahoma also benefited from those January rains. That moisture will help Oklahoma farmers put in 2004 crops, but they need more.

“We received two to three inches of rainfall in late January over most of the state,” says Oklahoma Extension cotton specialist J.C. Banks. “It really helped, but we need more to replenish subsoil moisture. We were so dry we had very little runoff, so the Altus-Lugert Lake still remains critically low.”

Much of the state suffered severe water shortages throughout most of the 2003 growing season.

In New Mexico, the drought continues. Roosevelt County Extension agent Floyd McAlister says things were bad last year and likely will get worse in 2004.

“In Roosevelt County, 2003 was the second driest year since 1912,” McAlister says. “I have good records since 1912 and 1917 was the driest, receiving only 7.40 inches that year.”

Last year was a close second. “In 2003 we only received 7.66 inches. And this is on the heels of five years before with less than average precipitation. (The long time average here is 16.8 inches.) Some producers in the county in 2003 received as little as three inches total. It is extremely dry.”

McAlister says some ranchers in the county have totally liquidated their cowherds. “What little wheat that was planted on the right day and managed to come up is mostly dead. Much never came up.”

He's concerned about Dust Bowl conditions. “I anticipate we will have spring winds comparable to those of the 50s that so many of us old timers remember.”

As for planting moisture, “there is no soil moisture for spring planting!”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com