Future of Texas water regulation remains unclear

Aug 23, 2013

Dewey Hukill’s ground sits in a bull’s-eye—smack dab in an area of West Texas where irrigation agriculture is threatened.

Moisture to start a crop has been scarce on his farm south of Olton in Lamb County.

The former vice president of the Texas Farm Bureau said he remembers when some irrigation wells churned out 1,000 to 1,200 gallons per minute. Some have diminished to 85 or 90 gallons.

“We have groups not convinced they will ever run out of water,” Hukill said. “Some believe they will pump until it’s gone then figure it out. Our hope is to see irrigated farming survive. We’ve got to cut water use.”

State water law in some respects is an impediment to conservation.

Ron Kaiser, professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M, said the state’s ruleof-capture gives landowners the right to pump water from below their property unabated. That has made it difficult to get all water districts on board with conservation.

The law was bolstered by the Texas Supreme Court ruling last year that landowners have rights in place below ground. The court has said if landowners come under regulation of groundwater districts, they can seek damages.

However, if a landowner unsuccessfully sues a district, the landowner is required to pay all legal costs, Kaiser said. This makes litigation less appealing.

There are about 100 districts statewide—making it difficult to get everyone on the same page. One aquifer in South Texas has 23 districts. In the Texas Panhandle there are 12 districts above the Ogallala.

“You’ll hear stories about conservation, but how many have meters and how many are actually in compliance?” Kaiser said. “Most landowners don’t want meters. If you focus on the High Plains, those folks are drought proof.

There are no serious limitations. The only limitation on pumping is energy costs to lift the water.”

“Face it, most districts are irrigators and they’re reluctant to impose regulations or restrictions.”

Setting limits

Steve Walthour, general manager of the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District that covers most northern counties in the Panhandle, said farmers in the district already are required to meter and report water usage. The district has set allowable annual water production limits based on the size of the property where a well or wells are located.

“The board didn’t go to doing metering lightly,” Walthour said. When the district board started talking about metering in 2003, “It wasn’t happy times.”

State law requires districts to set water conservation goals. Walthour’s district has a desired future condition to have 50 percent of the aquifer available by 2050—similar to many districts across the state.

From 2009 to 2012, the district reduced overall water production from 2 acre feet per acre to 1.5 acre feet per acre through conservation. The district created its own conservation reserve which basically allows farmers to bank water for future use.

“That has really worked well because we had some farmers who banked water in 2010,” Walthour said. “They’ve used some of that water that they banked in ‘11 and ‘12, may use some of it in ‘13. And we enforce our rules. I think it’s important to enforce what you’ve got on the books or you shouldn’t have it on the books.”

With Texas A&M University’s help, the district runs the North Plains research field studying corn varieties and water conservation.

District board members who are farmers use their own land to demonstrate conservation. USDA partnered with the district on a $500,000, three-year grant agreement to continue research. Yet, conservation work still has to cash flow for farmers.

“My board believes the bottom line is the bottom line,” Walthour said.

“If you can’t show some sort of net gain in the pocketbook, then it’s really hard to sustain conservation.”

Profits possible

Demonstrations show farmers can make profits using less water through strip tillage and no-till, gauging soil moisture and controlling water use through variable-rate irrigation. The district has started using satellite imagery to pinpoint crop water needs along with soil mapping.

If the Northern Plains district can convince all of its farmers to shave 1.5 inches off irrigation both in the spring and fall, Walthour said the district could save about 250,000 acre feet per year—or about the amount of water San Antonio uses annually.

As the aquifer continues to decline, the district’s reporting compliance is about 97 percent, he said. Many producers have changed irrigation methods based on the research.

“Across the state of Texas, if you’re farming in irrigation and using water like your father did 20 years ago, you’re out of business,” Walthour said.

Agriculture changing

A 2012 Texas Tech University study entitled, “The Rise of the Great Plains—Regional Opportunity in the 21st Century,” however, paints an overall favorable picture about the future of the aquifer as a whole.

The study said just 12 percent of cropland atop the entire aquifer is irrigated. Less than one-third of the total 15 million cropland acres are irrigated in socalled “threatened” counties.

Of those 36 counties, 19 are in Texas including Lamb County.

The analysis shows that in roughly half of Lamb County, the aquifer’s saturated thickness is expected to be less than 30 feet by 2050 at current depletion rates. That is the least amount states like Kansas consider necessary to support irrigation. Saturated thickness is the area just below the surface in which pore spaces are filled with water.

In the 36 threatened counties, there were about $3.46 billion in crop sales from both dryland and irrigated agriculture, according to the study. The study estimates that about $2.5 billion in crop sales are threatened.

Chances are, farmers in those counties will simply move to more dryland farming, the study said.

Ken Rainwater, director of the water resources center at Texas Tech, said at current depletion rates farming will look much different in the Texas Panhandle.

“Eventually, within a few decades we will not have as much irrigated farming as we do today,” he said.

“Farmers are already choosing to irrigate less.”

In the past 15 years, parts of the aquifer in the Panhandle have dropped 80 to 100 feet. Predictably, it is declining more rapidly where there is irrigation and generally rising where there is no irrigation.

Most Texas farmers have for years been unaware of how much water they were using, Rainwater said.

“There are a lot of guys who quietly do a great job, we just don’t hear about them much,” he said. — Todd Neeley, DTN