Bill Lovelady’s goal is to become water independent — to rely on groundwater to irrigate his usual 1,000 acres of cotton and 80 acres of pecan trees, and to stop depending on the uncertainty of river water and Elephant Butte Reservoir, which was holding only about 8.5 percent of capacity in late September.

With average annual rainfall of 7 inches and Elephant Butte dependent on meager rain and unpredictable snowmelt from New Mexico and Colorado mountain ranges, Far West Texas cotton farmers can ill afford to waste one drop of irrigation water.

“We have to manage water carefully,” says Lovelady, who grows mostly Pima cotton in El Paso and Hudspeth counties. “Everything gets laser leveled; we cut off the little hills across the fields to improve irrigation efficiency.”

Lovelady, the 2016 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award winner for the Southwest region, understands conservation from a need to improve irrigation efficiency to the necessity of preserving topsoil in what has to be one of the most challenging places to grow profitable yields of high quality cotton.

“Ideally, we run the laser level over the fields as often as we can,” he said in late September when his Pima cotton was showing its distinctive yellow blossoms and stalks were holding decent boll loads. “We often run out of time to do everything, but fields don’t need leveling every year.”

Laser leveling helps distribute water from furrow irrigation more evenly down the rows, he says. “For the last three years water quantity and quality have been less than desirable. I plant the driest two farms in El Paso and Hudspeth counties. I have 100 percent water rights in El Paso County — but 100 percent of nothing is not a lot of water.”

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That’s why he’s digging wells. “I pump water into irrigation ditches from the wells,” he says. He farms right on the Rio Grande, but says the river seldom gets enough rain during spring and summer to recharge Elephant Butte.