In 2011, the Texas A&M University Department of Agricultural Economics and Texas AgriLife Extension Service conducted a comprehensive study in the Lower Rio Grande Valley titled the Agricultural Water Conservation Demonstration Initiative (ADI project), a multi-faceted effort involving the Texas Water Development Board, the Harlingen Irrigation District, several South Texas agricultural producers, Texas AgriLife Extension (Extension) Service, and other agencies.

It was designed to demonstrate state-of-the-art water distribution network management and on-farm, cost-effective irrigation technologies to maximize surface water use efficiency.

In 2010, as part of the larger study, a furrow versus surge valve technology demonstration associated with the ADI project was completed to analyze potential water application and irrigation costs scenarios in cotton production.

At the time, irrigation water was sold to growers was $1.17 an acre-inch or $14 per acre- foot. The cost of surge valves at the time of the study was approximately $1,800. The results of the project concluded that while the investment required by growers to acquire and use surge valves in their cotton fields would have been minimally higher than purchasing water at prevailing prices, and considering irrigation water was readily available in 2010, only a few growers expressed interest in investing and converting to surge valve technology.

But the study, conducted by Texas A&M Extension specialists Mac Young, Steven Klose and Valorie Reynolds, correctly predicted that water would become harder to acquire in and prices would eventually rise. They concluded that the cost of purchasing and changing to surge valve irrigation would not provide an immediate cost benefit compared to traditional furrow irrigation methods, but it would help conserve water. They further concluded a time was coming, as water supplies diminished and the cost of water increased, when converting to surge valve technology would not only be cost efficient, but also would lower overall production costs.

According to water officials in the Valley, that time has arrived. With limited irrigation allocations, many growers have been forced to purchase water outside their districts at a much higher cost. With water availability at a 20-year low, the cost of converting to new irrigation technologies appears to be a less expensive alternative.

Tom McLemore, project manager at the Harlingen Irrigation District, was involved in the 2011-2012 study as project manager on the cotton fields selected for the surge irrigation technology evaluation. In addition, he grows sugarcane and is one of a few Valley growers who utilize surge valve technology on his farm.

"While water prices have not increased significantly over the last year or two, many growers have been forced to purchase water out of district because of water shortages. In these cases they are paying $35 to $60 an acre-foot, and this justifies the acquisition costs of surge valves," McLemore said. "These surge valves also help growers stretch their allocations, so not only is there a financial benefit to using the technology, but it also reduces the amount of water used on a field, and that's good for everybody."