Everyone on the High Plains knows about the troubles of the Ogallala Aquifer. Five trillion gallons are pumped out each year to irrigate about a third of the nation’s food and fiber production
areas, according to William Ashworth’s 2006 book about the aquifer, “Ogallala Blue.” With the aquifer declining year by year, how long can it last?
Rural people understand the value of 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 around 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.
Tread water. With aquifer levels declining faster in the Texas Panhandle than further north, people there should be concerned about the future. “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 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 they do advise conservation. “There are a lot of people who want to extend the life of this aquifer. As economists, we see that there are two choices to preserve water: We can extend the life of the aquifer at a lower level with constraints on agriculture 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 have come on irrigated varieties, not dryland varieties. The gap between irrigated and dryland varieties is so high, it’s advantageous for 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,” he says.
“Irrigation wells and maintenance costs are increasing. Some farmers turn on the wells and leave them running because there is not as much water pumping anymore. 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,” Hudson says.
Even where the aquifer is still in relatively good shape, better technology could help conserve water.
“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, such as 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 agriculture performs,’” Hudson says.
Water Meters Are Key
Water meters are key in efficient irrigation, says Darren Hudson, Larry Combest chair of agricultural competitiveness at Texas Tech University.
“If there’s just a 15% difference between what you think you’re pumping and what you’re actually pumping, you can save $10 per acre,” he says.
“Farmers used to not pay much attention to water meters, but with the aquifer declining and conservation on a lot of minds, I think attitudes toward water meters have changed quite a bit,” Hudson says.
A study by Justin Weinheimer, Texas Tech ag economist, shows that if a cotton farmer with a 120-acre center pivot irrigation system used a meter to reduce the 12" of water normally applied to the crop to 10.2" and matched inputs to that reduction, it would result in savings of $1,107.60.
“With typical costs of water meters ranging from $800 to $1,000, the investment would pay for itself in one growing season,” Weinheimer says.