About 90 percent of the Ogallala Aquifer water pumped in this region is used for agricultural crops. But that’s not all the irrigation water is growing, area economists say.

A close look at the impact of irrigation on rural communities is being taken by economists with Texas Cooperative Extension, West Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University and Kansas State University. The study is a part of the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service.

“We want to look at the alternatives and consequences of changes in policies and practices,” said Dr. Jeff Peterson, Kansas State economist in Manhattan, Kan. “What will happen to farm income? What is the impact on the regional economy? What happens to employment levels?”

Steve Amosson, Extension economist in Amarillo, said the information gathered will provide scientific facts to decision-makers and producers so they understand the possible outcomes before implementing policies.

“Hopefully, they can use it to design strategies that are not only cost-effective, but also minimize the economic impacts,” Amosson said.

Irrigated cropland acreage in the Great Plains has climbed from just under 7 million acres in 1959 to almost 13 million acres in 1978, and now hovers around 10 million acres.

Withdrawal exceeds any replenishing rate for the Ogallala Aquifer under most of the irrigated land. Therefore, transition from irrigated to dryland agriculture is likely to continue, and the need to implement sustainable irrigation practices is critical, the group said.

With the aquifer declining to a critical level, many ideas about “what should we do” are floating around, Peterson said. “But little scientific information about the consequences is available.”

The decisions have serious implications not only for the many rural communities on the Great Plains, whose economic base depends on water resources from the Ogallala, but for the future and continued competitiveness of American agriculture in the global economy, Amosson said.

This group’s goal is to look at the whole situation and come up with some suggestions.

The project started in the fall of 2003, said Dr. Jeff Johnson, Texas Tech agricultural economist in Lubbock. The long-term project, with a projected end date in 2008, is evaluating the economic impact of alternative water policies, irrigation technologies and bio-technologies on producers and the Ogallala regional.

Researchers are setting up models in three different regions of the aquifer: the South Plains, along with Roosevelt and Lea counties in New Mexico; the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles; and western Kansas and eastern Colorado.

The models start with the projection of groundwater availability, crop mix changes and economic benefits of water used for irrigated agriculture if nothing is done and pumping continues at the current rate, said Dr. Lal Almas, agricultural economist at West Texas A&M.

“We are trying to extend the useful life of the Ogallala Aquifer and make sure that water is available for future generations - beyond 60 years without compromising the economic sustainability of rural communities,” Almas said.

The question the economists will try to answer is “how do you do that with minimal damage,” Amosson said.

For instance, one proposed policy is the water right buyout program. The value of irrigation has been calculated for each county, representing initial estimates of what compensation payments would need to be from the government.

The significant variation in these values suggest a fixed payment rate for the entire region would likely only be attractive in those areas near the depletion, so would do little to preserve a large volume of groundwater.

Amosson said the economists are using IMPLAN, developed by The Minnesota IMPLAN Group Inc., to look at the socio-impacts of different management strategies and practices. IMPLAN is an economic analysis tool and the program estimates the impacts on an area as far as economic activity, employment and incomes.

“As you get into some of these practices, what may look good as far as water savings may be really bad for the regional economy,” he said.