Researchers are confident they can reduce agricultural water use before tapping into the Ogallala Aquifer becomes economically prohibitive, but they're not so sure producers will quickly buy into it.
"Oklahoma still has some good water from the aquifer, but the extent of it and the well capacities are going down," Oklahoma State University professor Jason Warren said. "We're trying to help growers maximize the value of that water now as well as look to the future to determine how the transition from an irrigated system to dryland is going to work.
"But we also need to see what we can do to alter perceptions about adopting better practices," he said. "Why is it that we can say X, Y and Z are good for production but everyone is slow to adapt? . That's always a tremendous challenge."
The Journal Record reports that Warren, in OSU's Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, recently joined seven other universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to research limited irrigation options and envision an ag environment without it. Led by Colorado State University, the consortium recently received a grant from the USDA worth $10 million.
The effect of drought in Oklahoma over the last few years has been clear, Warren said. Lakes, rivers and creeks have been low or completely dry, driving farmers and ranchers to seek alternative water and feed resources. Drilling into aquifers has helped many, but those sources are drying up as well; the stress just isn't as obvious underground, he said.
The largest underground source of freshwater in the country, the Ogallala Aquifer, is drying up at an alarming rate, he said. Spanning nearly 174,000 square miles, the aquifer is a primary water source for Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the aquifer's overall water level has dropped 36 million acre-feet below normal.
The Ogallala is particularly important to the Panhandle counties, where most of the agricultural acres are irrigated. Part of Warren's research will focus on how long the area can be irrigated.
"Even when I was an undergraduate, we talked about the economic viability of the aquifer being depleted by 2025," he said. "Now that deadline is less than 10 years away. So this is as much a pre-emptive effort as it is a reaction to an ongoing situation."
Garey Fox, director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Center, said his organization has funded several of Warren's projects, and he anticipates the Ogallala research will prove even more valuable. Fox said he's seen significant results from Warren's work on subsurface drip irrigation, what most small gardeners would recognize as slow-soaker hoses placed underground. However, few Oklahoma farmers have left their massive pivoting sprinklers in favor of subsurface drip methods yet, he said.
The problem involves game theory and policy, he said. Collectively, the entire ag community would benefit for a longer period if everyone moved to more precise irrigation and crops that need less water, but individually, farmers struggle with the cost of new equipment and methods. As long as productivity above the Ogallala doesn't decrease, farmers won't feel the need to change, Fox said. Good research can help shape industrywide policy.
Fox said the regional advisory board that has provided grant money to Warren's projects sometimes comes to the same questions: "We're trying to move to more efficient systems, but will that really make a difference? Or will people just keep using all the water until it's gone?" he said.
Warren said that when he's met with ag groups across the state who are interested in the latest irrigation methods, he's been encouraged by attendees' ages.
"I figured there would be quite a few older farmers, but the majority of them were around my age or younger. I'm not saying that old is bad, but they're more challenged to change practices," he said. "A 40-year-old is looking more critically at 30 more years in the career, so we've got some opportunity ahead of us."