Wise with Water

Irrigation Pivot-0980.jpg

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."

Telemetry systems, like FieldNet, are typically equipped with a control box, a tipping bucket rain gauge and a series of pressure transducers. The control box is the communication hub. It receives information from the other system components and transmits this information to the user’s phone or computer. In turn, the user can control the pivot from these devices, which helps conserve water, time and resources.

Telemetry systems, like FieldNet, are typically equipped with a control box, a tipping bucket rain gauge and a series of pressure transducers. The control box is the communication hub. It receives information from the other system components and transmits this information to the user’s phone or computer. In turn, the user can control the pivot from these devices, which helps conserve water, time and resources.

 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."

Check out water levels near your property by visiting  map.hpwd.org

Check out water levels near your property by visiting map.hpwd.org

Nov. 14 Ogallala Commons Playa Field Day at Crosbyton

Approximately 20 persons – including landowners, Master Naturalists, and teachers – attended the Nov. 14 Crosby County Playa Basin Field Day in Crosbyton.

 The meeting featured an overview of playa basins in the Southern High Plains region, a presentation about waterfowl and fall migration patterns, and an update on the Playa Basin Restoration Program sponsored by the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative.

 “Playa basins are the most important place for birds on the Southern Great Plains,” said Dr. Darryl Birkenfeld of Nazareth, executive director of Ogallala Commons. “Each year, thousands of birds make their way along the Central Flyway, where they eat and rest at up to 60,000-80,000 playa basins along the route.”

 Birkenfeld said Ogallala Commons sponsors playa field days for adults and playa festivals for students to increase knowledge of the importance of playa basins and their restoration.

 Texas Master Naturalist Jim Steiert of Hereford agrees.

 “Playa basins are truly the ‘Rodney Dangerfield’ of the plant world. They do not get the respect they deserve. The Central Flyway is the second most important migration and wintering area for waterfowl and other migratory birds.  There is increasing evidence that playa basins in this area are the most valuable habitat for these birds,” he said.

 Steiert said migratory birds are attracted to “habitats created by plant communities responding to a changing environment.” In essence, the birds travel to those areas with abundant food and water.  He noted that migrating Sandhill cranes appeared in the Hereford area on October 3 – about two weeks earlier than normal.

 “Playas are the keystone of the Great Plains ecosystem. They are the stone that holds it all together. It is sort of like playing Jenga.  Everything is fine until you remove the piece that causes the tower to fall,” Steiert said.

 He encouraged the group to take care of playas on their property and near their communities.

 “Playas are the sources of recharge for groundwater stored in the Ogallala Aquifer. It is important to have grass barriers around the playas to remove silt, which improves the quality of the water that may ultimately make its way back into the aquifer,” Steiert said.

 Another way to improve the playas is through a voluntary restoration program, sponsored by the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative.

 “There are about 23,037 playa basins in Texas.  Of these, 4,080 are functional, 5,631 are functional and at risk in the next 20-30 years, and 13,326 are non-functional.  A loss of buffer area, land development, and modification of the basins have all taken their toll on playas,” said Don Kahl with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

 He told the group about the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative (TPCI), which is a partner-driven effort to restore playas in the Texas Panhandle.

 Years ago, it was a common practice to dig pits or trenches into the bottom of playa basins.  Irrigation tailwater and/or rainfall collected in these pits.  Lake pumps transported the water to the head of the field for reuse.

 “Many of these pits and trenches are no longer needed and can be easily restored. Once the pit is backfilled, rainwater and runoff can again reach the entire playa basin, including the large cracks in the dry playa floor. This is essential for recharge to occur. It also allows plants and insects to flourish—which provides food for migrating birds and other wildlife,” he said.

 Kahl said landowners participating in the program incur no costs associated with restoring a playa.

 “We coordinate and conduct all the work.  To compensate for any inconvenience, there is an $80 per playa basin acre payment upon completion of the restoration,” he said.

 Playa restoration efforts are currently concentrated in Armstrong, Castro, Crosby, Floyd, Hale, Hockley, Lubbock, Lynn, and Swisher Counties. 

 The program has resulted in 489 playa basin acres restored to date.

 In addition to restoration efforts, Kahl said other conservation practices could be included in the program.

“This could include installing grass buffers around farmed playas, silt removal, and incentivizing leaving grass buffers around playas in expired Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land,” he said.

 A tour of a restored playa, located three miles east of Cone, TX, concluded the Field Day.

 Precinct One Director Dan Seale and Information/Education Supervisor Carmon McCain represented HPWD at the field day.

 Additional information is available at ogallalacommons.org and PlayasWorkForTexans.com









Extremely brackish water found in Wolfforth ETHP well

EDITOR'S NOTE -- This is the last article in a series designed to update readers on the status of the Edwards-Trinity (High Plains) Aquifer drilled in Wolfforth--CEM.

By Jason Coleman, P.E.
HPWD General Manager

In the first two articles of this series, we described the geophysical logging and construction of the test well at Wolfforth.  The results of the pump test and water quality test are presented in this concluding article of the series.

After the temporary well was constructed in the Edwards-Trinity (High Plains) (ETHP) aquifer, the contractor used an airlift procedure to help remove the drilling mud and develop the well.  It is necessary to remove the cake of mud in the borehole wall so that the formation water is transmitted to the well casing.  The contractor then installed a submersible pump for test pumping the well.  Over a twelve hour period of test pumping, the well did not produce much more than ten gallons per minute.  As a result, the test pump was removed in favor of additional well development techniques.  These processes involved more air lifting, as well as a chemical treatment to help remove any remaining drilling mud.  Despite these efforts, little improvement in the well productivity was realized.  Our conclusion is that the limestone rocks do not contain significant cracks or void spaces at this location.

The formation water produced during test pumping was also tested at this time.  The results of this analysis show very high dissolved mineral content.  The water was tested by hand sampler in the field, at a certified laboratory, and with a continuous monitoring probe.  All three methods produced very similar results.  You may recall that public drinking water systems must have total dissolved solids (TDS) of less than five hundred milligrams per liter.  A TDS of 500 mg/L is roughly the same as conductivity of 810 microsiemens per centimeter (uS/cm). 

The chart shown on the front page of this electronic newsletter indicates the test well conductivity ranges from 8,000-16,000 uS/cm, much higher than the allowable for public drinking water.

Scientific publications indicate that water quality in the ETHP Aquifer is generally a bit higher in TDS than Ogallala.  However at this location, the ETHP results are more than ten times higher in TDS than the Ogallala.  This leads us to question whether the sampled water is truly indicative of the ETHP, or if there is a Dockum Aquifer influence in the sampled water.  HPWD studies show that water quality of this same TDS level is present in the Dockum Aquifer.  We also know that “upconing” may occur in the Dockum, which could result in the high TDS results from these samples.  More work should be performed in the ETHP water quality sampling before we may conclusively resolve this question.

Annual water level measurements reveal average decrease of -0.16 of a foot

An average change of -0.16 of a foot was noted in the groundwater levels of the Ogallala/Edwards-Trinity (High Plains) Aquifer from 2017 to 2018 within the 16-county High Plains Underground Water Conservation District (HPWD) service area.
The 10-year District average change (2008-2018) is -8.76 feet while the five-year district average change (2013-2018) is -2.07 feet.  The average saturated thickness of the Ogallala Aquifer within the District is about 56 feet (2017-2018).
HPWD staff shared this information with the District’s five-member Board of Directors during their April 10 regular monthly meeting.
In early 2018, HPWD field personnel made annual water level measurements in a network of 1,353 privately-owned water wells completed into the Ogallala/Edwards-Trinity (High Plains) Aquifers.  In addition, water level measurements were also made in 33 Dockum Aquifer wells.
Since the 2017 measurements, there are nine counties with an average increase in water levels and seven counties with an average decrease.
Field Technician Supervisor Keith Whitworth shared statistics for the 1,250 observation wells with publishable measurements. He noted that about 40 percent of the observation wells measured in 2018 had water level increases.

  • 545 observation wells with increases ranging from 0.1 to 12.73 feet.
  • 462 observation wells with decreases ranging from 0 to -.99 of a foot.
  • 142 observation wells with decreases ranging from -1 to -1.99 feet.
  • 63 observation wells with decreases ranging from -2 to -2.99 feet.
  • 20 observation wells with decreases ranging from -3 to -3.99 feet
  • 13 observation wells with decreases ranging from -4 to -4.99 feet.
  • 5 observation wells with decreases ranging from -5 to -6.96 feet. 

“Each year, there are wells that show water level rises and others that show water level decreases.  The largest water level rise was 12.73 feet in a Lubbock County well while the largest water level decline was -6.96 feet in a Castro County well,” said Whitworth.
Updated water level data is now available to the public at map.hpwd.org
“Since 2013, the number of persons using the interactive map for depth-to-water and saturated thickness information has increased significantly. Because of this, HPWD is discontinuing its printed water level report starting this year,” said Jason Coleman, General Manager.  He added that moving to an online data platform eliminates the cost of printing and mailing the previous 84-page report, which saves taxpayer money.
Those who  would like printed information should contact Jed Leibbrandt at (806) 762-0181 or email him at jed.leibbrandt@hpwd.org. He can provide hard copies of water level measurement data for an individual county or specific counties of interest.

Download the 2018 Water Level Measurement infographic here

                                 This map depicts the 2018 water level measurement changes throughout the high plains water district. 

                                 This map depicts the 2018 water level measurement changes throughout the high plains water district.