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Water Wise: Doubling down on water conservation practices

CHERYL TEVIS 03/05/2014 @ 3:37pm Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

On a foggy, drizzly day in early February, Gary Price was grateful for a trace of moisture. “We were dry last summer,” the Blooming Grove, Texas, rancher says. “Beginning in September, we received 20 inches of rain. Now, the first five weeks of 2014 have been dry again.”

Price and his wife, Sue, raise beef at 77 Ranch in the heart of the Blackland Prairie about 75 miles south of Dallas. Throughout severe droughts in 2011 and 2012, their ranch never ran out of water, and they never bought feed to supplement pasture.

“We have to be ready to receive the rain we get,” he says. “Even if it falls on dormant grass, we’ll keep it. It’s all about building soil health and capturing rain. That drives our management.”

Water supplies across the U.S. are being drained at an unprecedented rate. Decades of dramatic population shifts into states with low precipitation set the stage. The trend away from a rotation of corn, wheat, and sorghum in the Great Plains and the Texas Panhandle to corn accelerated aquifer-fed irrigation.

The Keystone XL’s proposed path atop of the Ogallala Aquifer, along with the use of water in hydraulic fracking and biofuels production in other areas, has added to water pressures. These factors, combined with reoccurring incursions of drought into water-wealthy regions of the U.S., are raising the stakes.

Price had just returned home from the North Texas Water Summit in Dallas. “Texas is adding 1,000 people per day, and one third of that growth is in northern Texas,” he says. “The purpose of the summit was to figure out how to meet growing water demands. It generated a lot of conversations about conservation.”

A finite resource

More water is soaked up by agriculture than any other use. That’s why farmers, ranchers, and the agricultural community are on the front lines of this water war.

In 2012, 80% of U.S. agricultural land was impacted by drought. The specter of drought is appearing again this year, with the first 2014 forecast from the NRCS National Water and Climate Center. “Early indications are it will be very dry in the western part of the West,” says Tom Perkins, an NRCS hydrologist. (Visit wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/cgibin/bor.pl.)

One of the driest years on record in California, 2013 was the state’s third consecutive year of drought. About half of the state is in extreme drought today.

Drought is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. What lies below the surface is more revealing. A total of 50% of the value of the U.S. food supply is grown on the 16% of U.S. irrigated farmland. The High Plains Aquifer, anchored by the Ogallala, lies beneath parts of eight states and supplies 30% of irrigated groundwater.

A 2013 Kansas State University study indicates that 30% of the groundwater in the High Plains Aquifer region has been tapped out. If current trends in Kansas continue, another 39% will be soaked up within 50 years.  

“Groundwater levels are going down. At some point, pumping rates are going to have to decrease,” says David Steward, a coauthor of the study. “There are lots of questions about how long the water will last, how long it will take the aquifer to refill, and what society can do.”

The four-year study suggests that improving water-use efficiencies in corn production, with somewhat lower water use, also could allow for increased agricultural production on irrigated land through 2040. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, USDA, and Kansas State University.

“Water-use efficiencies are improving,” Steward says. “We’re growing about 2% more crop per year for each unit of water because of increased irrigation technology, crop genetics, and water-management strategies.”

New directions 

Encouraging efforts are under way to stem the tide of water scarcity. Farmers in Sheridan County, Kansas, are cutting water use by 20%. The 79 water-rights holders in the Local Enhanced Management Area may pump an amount averaging 11 inches per acre annually or 55 inches per acre over the next five years. Kansas is preparing its first water plan, a concerted focus on wise use of resources over the next 50 years.

In Nebraska, where more than 8.5 million ag acres are irrigated annually, farmers in the Republican River Valley were banned from using surface water for irrigation for several months last year. It was an effort to keep Nebraska in compliance with a three-state river compact.

The most threatened portion of the Ogallala Aquifer is in northern Texas. The state has a mandate to create a 50-year water plan for each water conservation district. However, the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District No. 1 has extended the moratorium on penalties for exceeding allowable production rates, installing meters on new wells, and reporting groundwater production through December 31, 2014.

At 77 Ranch, the Prices maintain two black baldy cowherds and operate a rotational grazing system using 30 pastures. Of their 2,600 acres, 300 acres are native tall grass prairie. They rely solely on surface water and small lakes. Part of their conservation plan is participation in the NRCS National Water Quality Initiative. It includes water-monitoring equipment. They’re also part of Sand County Foundation’s Water As A Crop Project (sandcounty.net).

“We’ll never control the amount of rain we get,” Price says. “We concentrate on things we can control.”

They plant cover crops like turnips and radishes to penetrate soil, to maximize water filtration, to restore organic matter, and to boost water-holding capacity.

“It all boils down to water,” Price says. “How we manage the rainwater we receive is the key to everything we do. We’ve got to get it right.”

Conserving U.S. water resources soon may rival national energy security concerns. Adapting to finite water supplies requires the latest tools and technology: irrigation innovations, no-till and strip-till, cover crops, and less thirsty varieties. Policy changes also will play a role.

Read on to learn how eight producers are navigating their way to a water-wise future.

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