No one is absolutely certain what agricultural production will be like in the Texas Panhandle in 10 or 20 years but most agree that it will be different.
Possibilities include much more dryland cotton and grain sorghum production as water resources continue to decline and restrictions on irrigation continue to increase. Some less productive acreage may revert to rangeland.
Change, in fact, is already underway. Many farmers who just several years ago used center pivot irrigation units to water entire circles of one crop every year are now planting one crop under half the pivot and another, perhaps one with more drought tolerance, under the other half. They concentrate water on the crop with the greatest moisture need or with the greatest profit potential and hope for enough rainfall during the season to make enough of the dryland crop to harvest. They switch halves the next year to take advantage of rotation.
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In some cases, farmers plant a single crop under the pivot but concentrate water on only half the circle.
Water saving strategies
Farmers are reducing tillage and leaving residue on the soil surface to conserve moisture and save soil. Many have installed subsurface drip irrigation systems to increase efficiency. Others have renozzled pivots or changed planting patterns to stretch declining water resources.
The prolonged drought, now into its fourth year, has focused even more attention on West Texas water woes. Farmers report continued declines in underground water levels and an inability to pump enough water in-season to keep up with crop demand. High summer temperatures, often topping 100 degrees for days on end, coupled with daily winds of 20 to 30 miles per hour or greater, pull moisture from the dry soil almost as fast as it’s applied.
And water districts and other water stakeholders are looking for ways to stretch those declining resources as far as possible, including irrigation restrictions as well as limiting consumer uses such as washing cars, filling pools and watering lawns.
Conflicts emerge from those restrictions as consumers, municipalities, industry and farmers and ranchers all vie for available water supplies. In areas where water is managed by water districts, the process may be better organized but not without controversy.
Ronnie Hopper, a Petersburg, Texas, farmer and board member of the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District No 1, says the issue of declining water is real. “I’ve been on this farm for 67 years, and we have less water now than we did when I was a child.”
Water is a valuable resource but more valuable for some uses than for others, he notes. “The water that comes in and out of homes has a greater value than water that goes onto the land. When a lady in town turns on the tap and has no water she will expect someone to have the water back on by sundown.”
Decades ago when a city needed more water they went out into the country, drilled a well and pumped water into town. That’s less frequent today with a declining aquifer.
More Planning needed
“We need more planning, more foresight and more common sense in water management,” says Hopper.
Water use theories may follow one of two principles—conservation or preservation. Conservation is using water now, conscientiously, to maintain a farm or business. Preservation means saving water for generations to come.
“Water will be worth more in 50 years,” he said. “But how much can I afford to preserve and still make payments on the land and make a living? Farmers face significant risk of their equity every year, and a couple of bad years could put us in a big mess.”
Jason Coleman is general manager of the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, an entity that manages water for all or part of 16 High Plains counties. He contends public participation is crucial to develop meaningful and equitable water use policies. “A local perspective,” is helpful, said Coleman, who has been in his position since last September.
“We use a county committee structure to generate feedback to our directors.” Those committee members, 94 in total, bring that local perspective to the board. “It’s an ongoing process.”
Friction may have eased a bit from two years ago when the District announced irrigation restrictions—set at 15 inches per year for 2016—and a requirement to install water meters for each irrigation well. See rules.
The monitoring requirement did not sit well with farmers, many of whom operate dozens of wells to water cropland. Cost of installing the meters, with some farmer estimates running as high as $2,000 per well, would be prohibitive for many. Some cotton farmers have indicated they have as many as 100 wells in play for irrigation.
Initially, failure to monitor those wells would have resulted in stiff fines. That regulation was delayed while the district sought a less expensive means of determining how much water irrigators use each year.
“It was a matter of money to producers,” said Steve Verett, executive vice president, Plains Cotton Growers. He said proving how much water they were pumping was expensive using those meters. “We have to find alternative means of monitoring,” he said. “We don’t have to use meters.”
Coleman agrees. “We are working on different ideas through the county committees to come up with several options,” he said, “rather than regulate one way and one device.”
He defends the need to monitor water use. “Monitoring helps improve water use efficiency.”
Alternative means of monitoring water use may include options used during a transition period: 1) natural gas consumption, (2) electric consumption, and (3) hour meters/nozzle packages on center pivot systems.
Knowing annual water use allows the district to establish equitable production rates.
Water use regulations have been met with some “pushback” from users, Coleman said. “In the time I’ve been here, we’ve had opposition present at our board meetings.” He thinks the most heated opponents consist of a “small but vocal,” group of producers. A coalition of opponents “has attended every board meeting, but our county committee meetings are not hearing a lot of opposition now.”
Giving people an opportunity to offer input has helped ease tensions. “Good dialogue offers some good questions and possible solutions to problems.”
Hopper said the opportunity to serve on the board comes with a lot of responsibility and takes a lot of time.
“For me to tell people what they need to know takes about 10 hours. To learn what I, as a director, need to know would take about two years. The board members typically spend 20 to 30 hours a week working on these issues. But it’s that important. It takes a lot of time and energy.”
He said the District and water stakeholders have to look ahead. “The District and the board are doing everything we can to be as accountable as possible to the people we represent.”
He’s also adamant that resolving water issues and managing the water resources in the District is best done by the people in the district. For one thing, the High Plains water situation differs significantly from other parts of the state. “In other areas, they have major and minor aquifers. The High Plains has one aquifer (the Ogallala). The Ogallala is a deep aquifer that doesn’t recharge as do other aquifers across the state. It’s also uneven across the region.