Water Scarcity on the Texas High Plains: The Ogallala Aquifer (video)

“We will have to develop much more sustainable, or durable forms of food production because the way we have done things up to now are no longer as viable as they once appeared to be.” Prince Charles speech on the future of food, May 4th, 2011

Published: Jan 2, 2012. Mankind is not on a timeless journey; as with all of life, our destiny is defined within the bounds of finite hope and promise. The magnificent bounty of nature, easily mistaken as being endless in supply, provides the foundation for all living things. It sustains the air we breath, the land we sow, the water, and other essential minerals in the earth, to create the necessary conditions for life to begin, and to flourish. But nature’s abundance is not without limits, and in particular, the human species must learn how to navigate life’s path less destructively, and less rapacious of the natural world’s finite resources. Quite simply, unless we change course in time, having consumed both house and home—we may find ourselves plunged— as other civilizations before us— into extinction.

Lubbock, Texas area from the air, showing center pivot irrigation circles.

Lubbock, Texas area from the air, showing center pivot irrigation circles.

On the southern high plains of Texas, on a time-scale less than an average human lifetime, growing concerns over water scarcity are playing out. In this semi-arid region of the country that represents the largest contiguous land mass dedicated for production agriculture (pdf), the total annual rainfall may be 18 inches, or in some years, substantially less. Since the rainfall is not distributed evenly over the growing season, or to be counted upon when most needed, the majority of the agricultural production, around 70% of food and fiber grown in this region, comes from irrigated lands.

The single source of irrigation is ancient water from a massive, underground aquifer. The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the largest, fresh water aquifer’s in the world, and was formed millions of years ago from the erosion of the Rocky Mountains. It traverses through portions of eight states (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming), providing 30% of the total water used in irrigation of agriculture, and accounts for an astounding 20% of the entire agricultural output of the country.

More efficient center pivot irrigation of a cotton field in Hale county.

By the early 1970’s, it became clear that the aquifer was declining significantly in the Southern High Plains region, most notably in Texas. Due to heavier use and highly inefficient irrigation methods that began about 1950, and a lack of adequate recharge to replenish the aquifer’s supply, better water management practices to extend this finite resource were required.

This short documentary provides a glimpse into an unusually important, and long-running research and demonstration project, called the Texas Coalition for Sustainable Integrated Systems Research (TeCSIS) and the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation (TAWC) that started with a grant from SARE to form TeCSIS. This combined project (TeCSIS/TAWC) involves scores of scientific researchers, educational institutions, government agencies, and local area farmers (producers) that are trying to find answers to extend the life of the aquifer, and promote more sustainable, economic viability for this invaluable agricultural region.

TAWC project manager, Rick-Kellison, talks to dry-land farmer Keith Phillips

TAWC project manager, Rick-Kellison, talks to dry-land farmer Keith Phillips

For the 20 Hale and Floyd county, west Texas producers participating in the TAWC demonstration project, there are 30 different sites involved. Ranging from monoculture cotton and monoculture corn, to multi-crop, integrated forage livestock systems— this project created a fundamental shift in producer attitude. The prior emphasis of always trying to maximize production yields, shifted toward a more sustainable effort to develop measurable practices that maximize the net return of the producers, factoring in all their input costs, including their water usage. For example, before all the measuring and analysis that took place through the TECSIS/TAWC project, farmers often continued to water later into the growing season, not realizing that their extended water use did not produce enough gain to offset their higher input costs of more fertilizer and increased (water) pumping costs. By coordinating with other experts in this project, producers were able to set realistic goals of anticipated production yields, lowering their input costs (including their water consumption), but improving their economic bottom-line. They learned that maximum returns keep farmers in business; maximum yields do not.

There is another ambitious goal of this project that may be as important as its efforts to extend the life of the aquifer in this region. Only 2.5% of the Earth’s water is freshwater. Roughly two-thirds of that water is frozen, leaving less than 1% available for growing crops, and for drinking supplies. The transferrable knowledge that is gained through this unique type of cooperative research effort may offer valuable clues to other semi-arid regions in the world who are facing similar critical water scarcity challenges.

When we look toward the very near future, with an anticipated 2 billion more global inhabitants expected by 2050, better conservation of these fresh groundwater resources will be critical for our continued well-being.

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