By Jayme Lozano / A-J Media
The Ogallala Aquifer has been relied on by communities in eight states for agriculture, drinking water and industry uses since at least 1889. As the water levels have steadily declined, however, there is now a race against the clock to make it sustainable again.
The High Plains Underground Water Conservation District estimates that there are around 60,000 wells throughout the 16 counties covered by the district. The number has increased over time to meet the needs and demands of the communities, but has also served as a safety net for farmers who have struggled with the common drought issues in West Texas.
"Agriculture here with the aquifer has been so good for so long, we've been totally dependent on it," said Barry Evans, a Kress producer in the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation. "Now as it's being depleted, we just can't anymore, so we have to figure out how to go without it."
Evans grows cotton and grain sorghum, and for 25 years has been completely no-till. The technique helps the soil structure remain in-tact, and improves the soil cover to increase the ability to absorb water.
"The reason I do that is to try to capture every bit of moisture we have, every bit of rain that falls and not losing it, every little bit makes a difference in this part of the world," Evans said. "We really have to save [the water] and use it as necessary."
While Evans is very conscientious about his water use, there are other producers who still aren't keeping future use of the aquifer in mind despite the studies done by groups including the TAWC.
"There's certainly some people that are more aware and more conserving than others, and some who want to keep doing what they've always done and don't follow the research," said Evans. "I wish every farmer would. It's important to know what is the most efficient. Everyone wants to make the best use of the aquifer, and I really wish more people would look at what they do."
The story could change year-by-year though as the climate has grown increasingly unpredictable with each planting season. While there was a drought to start 2018, that was quickly followed by a short burst of heavy rain and hail that destroyed some crops. And this year has seen above-average rainfall that both hurt and helped producers.
"There hasn't been that much irrigation within the water district so far because of the rain," said Jason Coleman, general manager of the HPWD. "When we see those daily values stay constant, that tells us the pump is not on and the water level is staying there at a higher level."
Rather than depend on the whims of Mother Nature, the HPWD has several long-term studies still underway to better understand the aquifer and effects of pumping water over time. Current projects consist of interactive maps and guides of the area covered in the water district, and on June 12, two proposals were approved for $157,000 in funding to research recharging methods.
"We have an improving groundwater recharge project and mapping of playa wetness and estimating recharge project," Coleman said. "I would say before the summer is out, all of that will be in place and the work will be underway."
While recharge research is beginning, there are other methods in place that are guiding producers towards conserving the water they do have in the meantime. Lloyd Arthur, a cotton producer from Ralls who is also part of the TAWC, contributes his techniques to a useful app called FieldNET that helps him monitor irrigation pivots from a phone or computer.
"I'm able to speed up the pivot to 100% so I'm not watering the land I don't want to water, and then slow it down and apply more water to my crop, and all in the degrees of a circle," Arthur said. "I have since gotten them on all of my pivots, I think they're that good and valuable of a tool. They do come with a cost, but the value of it for what I'm getting and savings for being a good steward of the water to my land is well worth it."
Arthur said the technology has been very helpful for him because, while a quick glance can show when crops are in distress, the app goes into detail about what kind of water the crop is using and therefore, could be causing problems. Data can also be shared between fields to see where farmers want to water rather than getting the management tool on every acre.
"I think it's helped me do a better job of being more efficient with the water that we're pumping out of the Ogallala," said Arthur, whose farm was chosen for the TAWC's first round of studies. "All farmers are conscious of the water and the water we're pumping, we all know the Ogallala is being depleted and we're trying to do our best to make it sustainable and profitable at the same time."
The first crop planted by the TAWC was in 2005, after then-State Sen. Robert Duncan of Lubbock sponsored the legislation that led to grant money being available for the research. In 2010, the group started using moisture sensors that informs growers of the depth the crops are rooted and where the water is being pulled from. After seeing the results, part of the mission for the TAWC became helping farmers get the technology in their hands.
"We try to help them use the technologies and let them make the decision on how well it worked," said Rick Kellison, TAWC project director. "We're not telling a grower that this technology is better than that one, we're just saying there are differences and what they are."
The Ogallala Aquifer is still a critical asset to the agriculture community, so it can be hard for some to cut back when the need is there. Kellison explained that instead, sometimes the best answer is making the most out of water that is pumped.
"If a grower is taking an amount of water and maximizing the production that the amount of water is giving, we think that's using water wisely because it's contributing to the total economy," said Kellison. "Water is only part of the puzzle, our producers are doing a phenomenal job in incorporating all of the best management practices."
The issue of the depleting aquifer is a serious concern but the efforts to conserve and use it wisely are becoming more effective. Researchers at Texas Tech University are testing grazing methods that have shown to be successful in using alfalfa-grass mixtures to get increased weight gain in cattle while also using less water.
According to Kellison, a company in Israel spoke with the TAWC about delivering technology that incorporates plant nutrition and water delivery. There has also been interest in multi-species cover crops that will better soil health so it's more receptive to capturing rainfall.
Techniques and research to save the Ogallala Aquifer are sure to continue, as the agriculture community is taking the problem seriously and are not wanting to see it be wasted anymore.
"There is a concerted effort from growers to do the very best job they can and we have got excellent support from different industries to help," said Kellison. "We're doing more with less today by far than we were 20 years ago, and I don't know a grower that's not aware and trying to do the best they can."