Everyone on the High Plains knows about the troubles of the Ogallala Aquifer. Five trillion gallons get pumped out each year to irrigate about a third of the nation’s food and fiber, according to William Ashworth’s 2006 in-depth book about the aquifer, Ogallala Blue. With the aquifer declining year by year, how long can it last?
Rural people understand the value of that water more than city folks, even on the High Plains. Texas Tech University economists took a look at the aquifer’s effect on the northern Panhandle area of Texas. They found that in the 26-county region centered on Amarillo, irrigation contributes $1.6 billion yearly to the local economy and accounts for 16,650 jobs. Two-thirds of that money comes from corn, $343 million from wheat, $165 million from cotton, and $36 million from sorghum.
The study does not include the Lubbock area, where more than 3 million acres of cotton grows, much of it irrigated.
With aquifer levels declining faster in the Texas Panhandle than further north, people there should be concerned about what the future holds. “The southern half of the aquifer either doesn’t recharge at all or doesn’t recharge fast enough to compensate for the irrigation drawdown. What we’re doing is sort of managing depletion,” says Darren Hudson, who holds the Larry Combest chair of agricultural competitiveness at Texas Tech and is one of the study’s authors.
Hudson and his co-workers are not alarmists, crying that the water will soon run out, but do advise conservation. “It’s not like we’re running into a brick wall. We’re not going to wake up tomorrow and there’ll be no water to irrigate. We don’t have a good window to see how long the water will last, but there are a lot of people who want to extend the life of the aquifer,” Hudson says.
“As economists, we see that there are two choices. We can extend the life of the aquifer at a lower level with constraints on agriculture and thereby preserve the water for a longer period. Or, we can develop dryland technology that decreases the risks,” Hudson says.
Work on drought tolerant varieties is encouraging, Hudson says, and should be accelerated.
“Yield gains lately have come on irrigated varieties, not dryland varieties. The gap between irrigated and dryland varieties is so high, it’s clearly advantageous to farmers to irrigate. If we collapse that gap so dryland yields are higher on a consistent basis, we would see farmers switch to dryland because it’s an easier production system,” Hudson says.
“Irrigation wells and maintenance costs are high. Some farmers now just turn those wells on and leave them running because there is not as much water pumping any more. They don’t get enough flow to actually irrigate the crop. Those are the guys who would probably drop out of irrigation altogether if dryland varieties were better. They would then be less subject to the ebbs and flows of the weather,” Hudson says.
Even where the aquifer is still in relatively good shape, better technology could help conserve water, and that would be a good thing.
“Where we’ve got water and saturated thickness, that’s where we really want to conserve it,” Hudson says.
Texas Tech’s recently-released study alerts cities like Amarillo that they should partner with agriculture in conservation efforts. “We’re telling the cities, ‘You have a stake in this, too. Your livelihood depends on how well agriculture performs,’” Hudson says.