Water, or lack of it, more than any other factor, limits success for Southwestern farmers and ranchers.

"We feel like we're always in a drought, it's just a matter of how severe," says Gary Grogan, National Resource Conservation Service, San Angelo.

Currently, many farmers in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico are suffering through a drought that has persisted for most of the past decade. Crop and livestock losses this year will be measured in the billions of dollars, just for these three states.

Dryland producers across much of the region have just plowed up the 2000 crop and hope insurance and government payments will be adequate to finance operations for another year. Those with irrigation saw production costs escalate with higher pumping and water expenses. For many, this is the second or third crop in a row that brought in little or no revenue.

Conserving water has become an absolute necessity.

"Moisture management is a critical part of what we do at NRCS," says Grogan. "We have programs available to help farmers analyze water use and to make them more efficient."

He says programs include brush control and irrigation efficiency.

"We analyze irrigation systems," he says. "If farmers are using ditch irrigation, we show them how they can prevent water loss by installing underground pipes or by converting to more efficient low energy precision application (LEPA) systems or to micro or trickle systems that use tape to distribute water efficiently."

Grogan says micro-irrigation systems improve water use efficiency to 95 percent. LEPA systems will provide from 85 percent to 90 percent efficiency.

"With furrow irrigation, a farmer may lose as much as 50 percent of his water."

Grogan also explained that Federal cost-share funds are available to help farmers convert to more efficient irrigation systems. "Farmers should apply through their Farm Service Agency," he says.

He points out that some areas, such as The North Concho River watershed, are designated high priority and more funds will be available.

Cost share is also available through the Texas legislature in the North Concho River watershed area for brush control. Other areas also are under consideration.

The problem runs deeper than just agricultural use.

"Farmers and city dwellers both are in desperate straits with water resources," adds Johnny Oswald, Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, also of San Angelo.

"If extreme drought continues, farmers will be broke unless they find more efficient ways to use water," says Grogan. "And San Angelo already has imposed water use restrictions."

Grogan says decisions farmers make with irrigation and other water uses may be key to staying in business and to assuring adequate water supplies to nearby municipalities and rural communities.

As Southwestern cities grow and industry booms continue, drought conditions that have persisted throughout the Southwest for much of the past decade will strain both water resources and city-rural relations. Competition between rural and municipal interests will be severe.

Consequently, it will be in the best interest of agriculture and municipalities to find more efficient ways to use water.

For that reason, Southwest Farm Press has devoted a significant portion of this issue to moisture management.

Unfortunately, we have done little more than scratch the surface of what is an extremely complex issue. But it's a topic we'll continue to explore in subsequent articles and other special emphasis issues. Look for the moisture management logo to learn more about efficient ways to conserve water.