“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.
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.
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.
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.
- Future of Food
Speech by HRH The Prince of Wales, May 2011
- Groundwater Management in the High Plains Aquifer in the USA: Legal Problems and Innovations (pdf)2007
- Rethinking Groundwater Supplies in Light of Climate Change: How Can Groundwater be Sustainably Managed While Preparing for Water Shortages, Increased Demand, and Resource Depletion? (pdf) 2008
- One Hundred Years of Agriculture– the Giant Side of Lubbock (download-doc)
Lubbock Chamber of Commerce
- Water Pressure
- Ogallala Aquifer
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)
- Ogallala Map Series
Texas Tech University
- Map of Ogallala Aquifer- 41 counties in Texas (pdf)
- Water Worries: Declining Aquifers Threaten Agriculture; May, 2011
- Ogallala Aquifer
High Plains Underground Water District No. 1
- The Ogallala Aquifer: Saving a Vital U.S. Water Source
Scientific American Earth 3.0-March, 2009 (paid download)
- Ogallala Aquifer: An Introduction (doc)
[Background music] The challenge is that while we are over the southern end of the aquifer, that’s a virtually finite water supply. Because of the ability to tap that resource and use it for irrigation, a lot of it’s already been used. It’s disappearing at a rapid rate. We use it and [inaudible] the recharge can be, and today we’re dependent on that for agriculture as we know it, but that’s changing. [Background noise] And that change has got to come as rapidly as the decline of the aquifer because we’ve got to learn other ways of keeping this land productive.
[ Music ] The southern plains is a very unique region in the United States. It is very flat. This was an enormous grassland. This was the area that was about the last to be settled by European settlement because it’s a very challenging land, and water has always been the challenge out here. We get about 18 inches of rainfall a year. It is normally going to come primarily throughout the growing season, which is helpful, but it tends to come in very intense events. We can get several inches of that 18 inches in a day’s time. So the distribution, even though it’s largely during the growing season, may not help us in terms of our agricultural systems, and we have no control over that, but it was discovered about 1850 that water was just under the surface from the Ogallala Aquifer, and as the ability to tap that water and pump it became more realistic, irrigated agriculture became the way of life out here.
This area within that period of time, the 50’s and 60’s, just developed based on the irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer. I don’t have the numbers right off the top of my head, but it’s somewhere around close to about 70% of the production is from irrigated crop production, in other words, irrigated agriculture. About probably half of the acres are irrigated, but yet they produce 70 or 80 percent of the production. So it is very significant in terms of its impact on the region.
>> Agricultural research or someone in agricultural research does just that. We look for answers. We identify problems and try to find an answer, and out here, one of the major problems is water. This whole Texas region, the high plains, sits over an aquifer that is one of the major aquifers, and we are running out of water. So it is a major challenge. So our research focuses on water.
The Ogallala Aquifer extends all the way up into South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and they have a lot more water in some areas than we do here in west Texas. The Ogallala Aquifer in the southern part of Texas is cut off by the area over here that’s been drained and eroded and over here by the Pagos River. So really this is the only extent that’s left. So we’re not getting recharge anymore from the Rocky Mountains. When people hear the word aquifer, they just think water. It’s a giant coke bottle underneath the ground, and you just stick your straw in for your well and, you know, you suck your water up through your well, but that’s not the case. What aquifer really looks like is imagine that coke bottle and you fill it up with little stones and gravel, and then what your aquifer is composed of are those stones and rocks and gravel, and the water just exists in the interstitial pore spaces of those rocks. That together comprise the aquifer, and that aquifer is contained in an area underground. So the aquifer might be two to four hundred feet below the surface where you’re standing right now, and then it’ll be about a couple hundred feet thick in a good area, and then you’ll have clay. You’ll have a clay layer, and that will be your aquiclude or aquitard, and then you’ll have other sediments below that. So your aquifer’s contained in a limited area. Here is a map of producer irrigation wells in west Texas in 15 counties in west Texas. This area represents the region of the high plains underground water district, and what you’re looking at here are 72,000 points or straws. These are wells that are tapping into the Ogallala Aquifer, and you can see a really area here that’s very, very dense wells, and the density of wells is a reflection of where you have the most water and those deep irrigation channels that we looked at when we were looking at the base of the aquifer. What we’re doing is visualizing information, and it’s intelligent information. So we can look at trends and patterns over time and space. We can look at distribution of features and wells. We could look at the patterns of producer fields and how the water is changing underneath them over time.
The amount of water we have got to conserve in order to extend the life of the aquifer is a difficult number to get. Just how much water is there and how long it will continue, there are a lot of people working on this.
[ Pause ] If you are talking about something of the magnitude of agriculture and water issues, this is something that must be approached by a very interdisciplinary team of people. There is no one that can approach this and find an answer working in isolation . Texas represents the group of us that came together to do the basic and applied research.
To tell you a little bit more about what we’re doing, to try to find the answers, I need to go back to when I came out here in 1995 and one of the things that was becoming very apparent by 1995 was the decline in the water resource, and it was obvious that things would need to be done differently. It was also obvious to me coming from the east that this was a land of two great monocultures, and that was cotton and cattle, and there was very little crossing over between those two industries. A lot of the cattle were on feedlots. There just wasn’t much connection between those two industries, but they were both hugely important, and so we began to look at ways that we could try to improve the ability to stay in agriculture without using so much water and at the same time to gain some of the other advantages of reducing soil erosion and economics and all the other objectives that you would have. We were very fortunate at that point to be able to get a grant from the USDA Southern SARE Region that allowed us to start the research, and that research initially compared two things—the monoculture cotton, which was the way of cotton being grown out here versus keeping cotton in agriculture but combining that with grass and cattle, and our objective was to find out if that integration of cotton and cattle and grasslands in a system where you integrate these pieces and you get complimentary effects would in fact reduce water use and maintain the economic profitability, and 10 years later, I can stand here and tell you it did exactly that. The integrated system uses about 25% less water than the cotton monoculture. It is equally as profitable as the cotton monoculture, and we found an array of different benefits as well. For instance, it uses about 40% less nitrogen fertilizer than monoculture. So it was a step in the right direction. It is not the final solution to anything, but what it does show is that there are ways to do things differently that can address the questions that we’ve got, but there is advantage to combining these pieces, and it’s not just because it’s cotton. It’s a monoculture approach versus an integrated approach that we’re looking at. So it could have been any kind of crop as a monoculture, and it would have behaved differently as no two are alike, but it is that concept of the same thing over and over versus the complementarity of diversification. There’s advantage to that. We’re not the first to show that, but I think we’re among the first to show it out here where the issues are so profound. When you address a problem on a landscape scale of this magnitude and you need to understand how these things function because that’s the transferrable information, then you need to bring a team of people together that can explore this from every possible direction whether it’s economics or whether it’s basics or quality or microorganisms or animal nutrition or basic plant physiology or weather prediction or hydrology of the area, it all must come together.
The biggest thing that excites me about our research is it is directly applicable to the producer.
[ Background noise ] We’re taking pieces that are already working today that are on the fields that the producers are actually using, and we’re taking those pieces and we’re fitting them together into a puzzle, if you will, of trying to say, well how can we configure these pieces, how can we best utilize these pieces in order to conserve water, to reduce soil erosion, to improve the soil health, to allow the producer to be more diversified, to increase his income or at least maintain his income, and to recognize the natural resources benefits and the increase of wildlife. So one of the things that we’re trying to do is that we’re incorporating all of these things so that the producers can look at it and they can say, “Well, I’m comfortable with cotton. I’m not so comfortable with grass and cattle, but I might be willing to try that on a smaller scale.” So the research that we do shows them that it can be done, and we have tried to utilize that to educate them on how to do that and to give them the assistance in order to make these transitions from, say, monoculture cotton into an alternative system.
We learned things 5 years into this that I would have never guessed when we started, and it is just a wealth of information. Long-term research is critical to getting the answers. We can’t get them in small blocks. We can’t get them in short term. We have to have long term funding opportunities to keep these going, and we have to have them in order to get some of the answers that are going to give us the ability to develop more sustainable agriculture for this region and any other. We have a state senator out here, Robert Duncan, who is very passionate about the water issues in Texas. He is from this west Texas area, very knowledgeable about it, and was determined to take steps at the state level to try to put some things in place to help improve what we were doing. We received over 6 million dollars to put together the Texas Alliance of Water Conservation, which is the producer demonstration part of this. It’s there because we were already were in motion, because we were already making progress on the research side, and we had something to implement. [Background noise] And it’s there, first and foremost, because we’ve got an extraordinary group of producers out there who were willing to take the risk, and it is a risk to them to become visible and to have their water use measured. It is a risk, and they were willing to take it, and they told us in the beginning that they would rather be part of finding a solution than waiting and being told what they were going to have to do, and they’ve done exactly that.
My connection with the TAWC project is I’m Project Director. The project is unique from several standpoints, but one of the first is the diversity of the different entities that are involved, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, AgriLife Extension, the Farm Assistance Program, Texas A&M Experiment Station, USDA ARS and NRCS, but probably the most important component is the buy in that we’ve had from producers. We currently have 20 producers in the project with 33 sites now, and we have approximately 4500 acres in the project. We have everything from monoculture corn or cotton to integrated [inaudible] livestock systems. The way the project operates, we don’t dictate to a grower what he plants, and I can’t tell you how important they’ve been because they help us keep records. We know exactly what was planted, when it was planted, all the tillage operations, herbicides, insecticides, fertilizer, quality of the crop, of course, yield of the crop. Then the measurements we take, all of our irrigated systems are designed so we know how much total water has gone out on that particular field.
The main object of this project that we’re in right now is to try to figure out how much water it takes to produce a pound of cotton or a bushel of corn, and we, right here, normally we’re between four and five hundred gallons per minute that we pump from 390 to 400 foot into the aquifer, and we run our [inaudible] pivot here, and this pivot, it takes it 60 hours to water 61 acres, and it’ll put an inch on in 60 hours. If you’ve got a well that pumps 450 gallons per minute, and then you figure that times how many minutes in 60 hours, and then you don’t… It’s scary to see how many gallons it takes.
But you need it for growing.
The majority of all our acres, probably 95% of them, is all irrigated. The majority is all [inaudible]. I would say since the year 2000, probably our energy cost of pumping water has probably… has done anywhere from double to triple to even four times the rate of what it used to be. I can remember in the mid-90’s that my irrigation cost for this operation was around 30 to 35 thousand dollars and now we’re looking at a budget of 200,000 dollars for those same acres of irrigation, and it’s all based upon energy.
The cost of pumping has gone up in this area because of the increase in energy prices over time and also the deeper we have to pull the water. I mean, there’s this relationship, the deeper the water, the greater the lift that you have to bring it up, the more it’s going to cost you, and as we’ve seen this increase in the cost of irrigation, again, that’s another incentive to become more efficient.
One of the things we furnish back to the growers along with the profitability of their site is what is their net return per acre inch of water applied, and so that gives them a consciousness of what they’re actually selling their water for because regardless of the commodity that we’re marketing, in essence we’re selling our water.
Another thing when I look at the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation, it’s made me more aware to try to match, you know, our fertility rates along with our irrigation rates, and there’s no need to fertilize a crop… no need to fertilize like cotton for 1500 pounds and you only have enough water to produce 1000, and so what it’s done is it’s made us all look at the different rates of fertility to kind of match those with the water demands that we have. But as we run out of water, which it’s happening, every year we have less because we’re pumping it out, we’re not getting it replenished. When I first started farming in ’73 all my land was irrigated. I didn’t farm as much as I do now, but it was all irrigated, but after about 10 or 15 years, we’ve run out of water, and that’s when I become dry land farming. [Background noise] I farm a total of about 2400 acres, and we try to put half of it into cotton each year and rotate it to the other half the following year if we can. Our average rainfall is around 14 inches, I believe. If you get less than that, it gets extremely hard to make a crop. So if you have a year that’s less than average, you’re not going to expect a very good crop. It is a risk. There’s going to be some years you don’t make a crop, but dry land farmers have learned to when they make a good crop, they put their money up and save it for the years they don’t have it, and if you really watch your p’s and q’s, you can do real well dry land farming. I enjoy it. I prefer it over the irrigation. I do have some irrigated farms, and I like them both, but I love dry land farming. It’s less pressure, and it’s kind of a challenge. Some people like challenges. It’s a challenge to try to do better the next year or figure out how to preserve the moisture and do a better job.
The producers are one of the most adaptable individuals anywhere. They have to deal with different climate changes because from one day you may have a hailstorm to a freeze to a flood to drought, and so they have to be adaptable. They have to be able to adopt new practices and new things, and as time progresses, they wouldn’t be out here if they didn’t, and as our water resources decline, as these things start to happen, these producers are going to start adapting to these changes in the environment, and if that’s to go totally dry land cotton, some of them will go dry land cotton. If that’s to start putting more of their land back into grass and start introducing livestock in order for them to maintain their livelihood in this area, then that’s what they’ll start to do.
The agriculture producer has a… has got to meet their financial obligations today. They’ve got to meet the requirements of supporting their families and, you know, making a living. We got to plan the short-term realities of these producers having to stay in business versus the longer-term goals of conserving the water. So that’s the challenge that policy makers are going to have to face when they go to crafting the policies that possibly allocate water.
The story out here on the Texas high plains is not the only such story. There are stories around the world that are our story. There are places that have already run out of water. There are places just like here that are going to run out of water if we don’t start to do things differently. We hopefully will see expanded collaboration with the scientists and students more and more as we go forward. There’s every reason to do that, and we want to do that. We have been doing that. We need to do more of it, but we have a lot to learn from each other. We’re all in this together.
If we can find the answers and solutions out here, then they can be applied elsewhere. This cooperative spirit that we have is because there are so many people that are involved in this project. I mean, you’ve seen just a few. [Background noise] It’s a huge group of people, and it’s very difficult to do that type of research. Systems research is expensive, but cooperative systems research is a whole different story still because you have to have an individual that can get a group of people together that will allow them to work together, to allow them to be cordial to each other, and to not be so biased against their own entity or their own university or their own company, that are willing to share and come together and to provide the solutions, and that’s what we’re going to have to do, and we went through that period. When we first started this project, there was bickering and there was jealousy between different entities and whatnot, but as it has progressed and as we have moved on, these people have come more on board, and they see the value in what we’re doing, and they see the opportunity that’s out there in the future and the opportunity for us to succeed and to benefit basically mankind to achieve these goals of reducing water, of conserving our natural resources, of getting higher yields, of trying to maintain profitability, basically of just being able to continue to survive and live and be at peace on this planet, because without food, without a bountiful supply of food, that’s where wars start, and as long as agriculture is the central and the most important part—maybe not most important, but certainly up there with it—as long as agriculture is there and that importance is placed on it, then we will have peace, we will continue to prosper, and we will continue to move on. Once you take that out of the picture, all bets are off. That’s the way wars start. People that are hungry [background noise] are going to get restless.
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[ Music ]
[Background noise] This video has been made possible with funding from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, SARE.