Summer drought brings water conservation to forefront
By Jennifer M. Latzke
For the farmers and ranchers of the High Plains region, water conservation can mean the difference between profits and losses; a harvestable crop and a failure; a cattle herd and the sale barn. And for most irrigated farmers the status of one body of water is the defining factor in their bottom lines--the Ogallala Aquifer.
This aquifer lies beneath nearly 174,000 square miles of land in six states, from the Panhandle of Texas to the western portion of South Dakota. About 95 percent of the water pumped from the Ogallala is used to produce nearly one-fifth of the nation's agricultural production, worth nearly $20 billion.
The High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, which covers a 16-county service area surrounding Lubbock, Texas, is just one of the many conservation agencies that monitor usage of the Ogallala. And this summer's flash drought, combined with the lasting effects from last year's prolonged drought, has many concerned about conservation.
The HPUWCD has a network of 1,280 privately owned observation wells, explained Carmon McCain, Information and Education supervisor. Every December HPUWCD staff take measurements called "depth to water level measurements." It's the distance from the top of the land surface to the top of the water table below ground. "The average change from 2011 to 2012 showed a decline of 2.56 feet within the 16-county service area," McCain said. "Or, 1.04 feet for the five year period from 2007 to 2012, or 0.81 feet for the 10-year period from 2002 to 2012. And, this was the third largest average annual change in water levels since the district was created in 1951."
Lubbock's rainfall for 2011 was only 5.86 inches, far from its usual 18 inches. Farmers had to make up for the lack of rain by pumping more groundwater to run through their irrigation systems. "Our producers do a wonderful job of conserving water through the hard years," McCain said. "Even on the urban side we're seeing more and more emphasis on xeric landscapes and more awareness of the need for conservation."
Consumers, both agricultural and urban, are more aware that since the High Plains hasn't received rainfall that there likely has been little to no recharge of the aquifer and no runoff into surface reservoirs, he added. "Those reservoirs in the western part of Texas are hurting," McCain said. "Some are at 0 to 25 percent of capacity." In a normal year, the aquifer would recharge anywhere from one-quarter to 2.25 inches of water, he said. This year, that number will most likely be quite less.
The district doesn't allot water, it simply monitors usage and works for conservation of the resource, McCain said. The district has been charged by the Texas Legislature to set desired future conditions for the aquifers that that have jurisdiction over for a 50-year planning period. "In our district we set a management goal and a desired future condition to have 50 percent of the groundwater available on Jan. 1, 2010, available 50 years in the future, or 2060," McCain said. "We set a management plan with rules designed to meet that goal and we revisit it every five years according to state statute."
Jim Conkwright, general manager of the HPUWCD said the majority of agricultural producers realize that these management goals are in the best interest of the aquifer's long-term life. "The big majority realize something needed to be done," Conkwright said. "We should have amended these rules 20 or 40 years ago to include production limits. It's unfortunate to be in the middle of a drought, but what better time to point to the need?
"The people I've talked to are mostly on board," he continued. "But there's a real vocal minority that doesn't want the regulations at all. And that's just not the reality of the world."
Conkwright said that there are some challenges to water conservation and agricultural practices. He gave the example that some crop insurance agents require their clients to continue watering fields even though the crop has clearly failed. "Some agents operate differently than others," he said. "Some require the water to go on longer to crops that have failed to show that there's been a fair effort to save the crop." It's an issue that needs to be tackled in the future.
Farmers are becoming proactive in changing their production management decisions, Conkwright added. "We've seen major change in the seed of crops that are available today to use much less water," he said. "I had a man call me last night, he's trying some corn varieties that are very competitive with what we have today and take half the water.
"We're also seeing where people are having to learn to adapt to the water they have," he continued. "In too many areas they're already at points that they don't have enough water for a full circle. So, they grow different crops or partial crops. Maybe half the circle is devoted to a more water intensive crop and the other half to another crop that is less intensive." Even municipalities are getting in on the conservation act.
In the last 10 years most of our cities have changed to a conservation rating within the town, where the less water you use, the cheaper your water bill, Conkwright explained.
As for the booming oil and gas industry's use of water, Conkwright said for the most part the companies are staying compliant with conservation efforts. There may be one or two incidents of violation for not registering and reporting use on a well, but most have cooperated with us, he said. "Some of our adjoining districts have had to send the same companies more than one letter, though," he said.
Aquifer water conservation for future generations will take some innovative ideas. Conkwright said that there are a some things Texas is looking into, for example some other aquifers that are more saline than the Ogallala could be desalinated for municipal use. There's also talk of an aquifer recharge program that uses a system of waterways, canals, pipelines and channels to move water from rivers like the Mississippi and the Missouri that flood, all the way across the High Plains to recharge the Ogallala in those flood periods. It's decades from practicality, but it's one of those ideas that may help in the future.
"There's some real forward thinkers out there," he said.
Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring an issue to the forefront of the public conscience.
The flash drought of 2012 is certainly doing so for water conservation. Overall, people of the High Plains, whether farmer or urban dweller, understand the need for water conservation, Conkwright said.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807, or firstname.lastname@example.org.