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Texas water policies affect agriculture

Conference topics highlight water-related issues from insurance to Texas water policy to transboundary water issues, water planning and conservation.

Ron Smith

January 5, 2023

5 Min Read
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Shelley E. Huguley

Speakers from several agencies involved in regulating, monitoring or developing systems to use water more efficiently discussed some of the most pressing water issues facing Texas agriculture during the recent Texas Plant Protection Association Annual Conference in Bryan.

Key issues include transboundary aquifer cooperation, water resource management, water conservation strategies, key considerations for insurance and irrigation practices, and plans for future water resource use.

Irrigation and insurance

Amanda Hancock, senior compliance officer, USDA-RMA, Dallas, said if farmers wondering about complying with crop insurance policies related to irrigating during a drought just “follow the rules, they won’t get into trouble.”

Those rules might pose some consternation as drought-plagued farmers wonder how long they have to irrigate a failing crop, whether they can divert water to an alternate crop, or what happens if irrigation systems fail after the crop is in the ground.

Hancock said multi-peril crop insurance policies protect against unavoidable naturally occurring events. “Each crop could have a specific list of covered events, including hail, wind, heat, excessive moisture, flooding, tornadoes, even volcanoes. (We offer insurance in Hawaii.) What is not covered is any act by any person that affects yield, quality, or price. If it is a manmade problem, it is not covered.”

Hancock said the key points to remember are:

  • Management decisions should be economically sound. 

  • Discuss your options with your agent and insurance providers.

  • File your notice of loss timely.

  • Consent must be given prior to crop destruction or abandonment.

  • Notify your insurance providers of any water diversions.

  • Work with your insurance provider.

  • Keep your records.

Conservation strategies

Gary Marek, USDA-ARS field research, discussed water conservation strategies, specifically in the Texas Panhandle.

“The primary source of water up there is groundwater,” Marek said. “It's cold in the winter, but it's always windy. We have low precipitation in general, but it's erratic and unpredictable.”

With those conditions, he said growing any crop, with the possible exception of winter crops, requires supplemental irrigation.

He said  livestock water use is also increasing but is expected to level off or decrease as the Ogallala Aquifer continues to diminish and livestock enterprises move to where there's more water.

The increased pressure on underground water resources will necessitate improving water use efficiency, Marek said, but strategies exist to get more production from each drop of water.

Irrigation scheduling uses crop coefficients, soil water status and canopy temperatures to irrigate at the most favorable times.

”We’ve seen tremendous advances in irrigation equipment,” Marek said. “With low elevation sprinkler application (LESA), we move the mid-elevation from about a six-foot sprinkler drop down to 18 inches. LESA, subsurface drip irrigation, mobile drip irrigation, and variable rate irrigation are designed to reduce evaporative losses.”

He said advances in plant breeding also make a difference in water conservation. 

“We can expect rapid expansion of advanced irrigation control systems in coming years,” Marek said. “New sensors, moving from non-ag sectors, will lower costs. We will see wireless sensors and communication stations.”

He said big data and artificial intelligence will improve irrigation control and water use efficiency. Increased access to broadband internet, satellite, cellular and wireless technology will improve irrigation efficiency.

“But technology must be readily accessible and easy to use,” he said.

Transboundary water issues

Rosario Sanchez, senior research scientist at the Texas Water Resources Institute, said assessing groundwater resources across borders, specifically Mexico and the United States, becomes more important as resources and national reserves becomes more limited.

“Mexico and the United States water treaties do not cover groundwater,” Sanchez said.

She said political boundaries hinder cooperation in managing aquifers that cross beneath borders. “Countries need to reimagine how our societies could function under a natural shared condition.”

The goal, she said, is to move the idea of cooperation forward, to gain institutional support and obtain funding.

“My conclusions are always questions,” she said.

“Is science enough? We know it's not. It is the first step and a very important step, but knowledge is not all we need.

“Our purpose is to improve conditions of groundwater management in border regions, but sometimes it's not enough to be right. It's not enough to have the science. We also have to be effective in making that science translate into something useful.”

Texas water policy

Thomas Marek, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, said the reasonable water policy in effect in Texas originated with a water plan created in 1961. “It got serious in 1997 with passage of Senate Bill 1. All the Texas water plans can be summed up as meeting the need to balance Texas water supply to demand,” Marek said.

Texas has 16 regions that integrate more than 100 water districts for groundwater and surface water.
“We have coordinated water planning because the 16 groundwater management areas are not the same as the regional areas. Regional plans differ due to the needs, sources, interests, and economics with respect to each region.”

He said primary water use varies from region to region but across the state agriculture is the largest consumer.

The Texas Water Development Board is responsible for the various plans across the state.

Desired future conditions

“What's the desired future condition related to water?” asked Dana Porter, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension engineer, Lubbock.

Water planning is the key, she said, to deal with  “depletion and the potential impacts on the sustainable ability of irrigated agriculture. We have reduced well capacities, so we don't have the ability to fully irrigate, which makes our mitigating strategies even more important. Also, degradation of groundwater quality is a factor. Salinity is a big issue in many parts of Texas.”

Porter said using available technology is important. “But we also have to give a nod to policy and financial incentives.” Porter said policy and financial approaches are intended to incentivize conservation.

Desired future conditions, defined by Texas Administrative code, is the “desired quantified condition of the groundwater resources going forward in a time limit set by groundwater conservation districts within the groundwater management area.

“The Texas Water Development Board will assist districts in identifying and accessing technical information to help develop and support desired future conditions,” Porter said.

Groundwater conservation districts, Texas water law, and Texas state law enable groundwater conservation districts to draft rules providing for conservation regulation and preservation of aquifers in their subdivisions, she said.

Available assistance includes financial incentives such as  low interest loans and cost share programs.

 

Read more about:

Ogallala Aquifer

About the Author(s)

Ron Smith

Editor, Farm Progress

Ron Smith has spent more than 30 years covering Sunbelt agriculture. Ron began his career in agricultural journalism as an Experiment Station and Extension editor at Clemson University, where he earned a Masters Degree in English in 1975. He served as associate editor for Southeast Farm Press from 1978 through 1989. In 1990, Smith helped launch Southern Turf Management Magazine and served as editor. He also helped launch two other regional Turf and Landscape publications and launched and edited Florida Grove and Vegetable Management for the Farm Press Group. Within two years of launch, the turf magazines were well-respected, award-winning publications. Ron has received numerous awards for writing and photography in both agriculture and landscape journalism. He is past president of The Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association and was chosen as the first media representative to the University of Georgia College of Agriculture Advisory Board. He was named Communicator of the Year for the Metropolitan Atlanta Agricultural Communicators Association. Smith also worked in public relations, specializing in media relations for agricultural companies. Ron lives with his wife Pat in Denton, Texas. They have two grown children, Stacey and Nick, and two grandsons, Aaron and Hunter.

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