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Crop irrigation to take big cut

Cutting back on water consumption by just 22 gallons per year seems like, well, like a drop in the bucket, compared to the amount of water folks use for such inconsequential chores as washing cars, watering prize roses, or hosing down driveways to remove lawn debris.

And most folks could cut back that much and never miss it. But diving a bit deeper into the issue, which flows from an anticipated water shortfall for Texas by 2050, shows that agriculture gets splashed with a 12 percent decrease in irrigation.

The challenge between now and then, says B.L. Harris of the Texas Water Resources Institute, is to find ways to grow crops and livestock with less water and without sacrificing production.

“We will meet the demand,” Harris said in an address to the Texas Seed Trade Association Annual meeting recently in Dallas. “But it will not be easy and it will not be cheap. We will not run out of water in Texas, just cheap water.”

Harris said various institutions and state agencies are looking at ways to increase the water supply and decrease use.

“Conservation plays a big role in the solution,” he said. “Agriculture must reduce water use. Currently, agriculture is the dominant water user in the state. That will change and urban use will claim the top spot.”

Municipal demand will increase by 67 percent within the next 50 years, he said. Manufacturing demand will rise by 47 percent.

He said traditional research institutions, as well as a new Irrigation Technology Center, will develop more efficient irrigation systems. Drought tolerant crops will replace some current varieties.

Harris said renovating or replacing water delivery systems, such as the antiquated ones winding through the Lower Rio Grande Valley, will save significant amounts of water. Sub-surface drip and micro irrigation systems use water more efficiently than some other types of irrigation, Harris said.

“And we need to switch to science-based irrigation scheduling systems.”

Laser leveling will reduce runoff and changing tillage methods also may save water. Harris said conservation solves only part of the problem. Texas must develop new water resources, as well.

He cited new reservoirs, new groundwater sources, re-use, desalination and reclaiming water from oil and gas drilling as possible new sources.

We're studying ways to enhance rainfall capture,” he said. “If we can modify playa lake soils we can recharge aquifers. Brush management, for which we have state funding, offers water savings opportunities.”

Re-using wastewater will improve supply. “And oil and gas drilling brings up six to eight barrels of water for every one barrel of oil or gas. We need to develop ways to make that water available for use.”

Desalination will tap a huge resource, seawater, for irrigation, municipal, and manufacturing uses.

A few controversial issues also promise to show up as legislators paddle through the water supply dilemma. Precipitation enhancement, cloud seeding, could be used even more widely.

“Inter-basin transfer of water may mean moving water from areas with low populations to municipalities. Water marketing may become a huge issue,” Harris said. “The legislature will address the ‘rule of capture’ provision that has been the crux of water law in Texas for years.

“The debate may include questions of water ownership, whether a landowner has the right to sell water under his property. Water will be among the top five issues the Texas legislature faces this session.”

Harris said Texas citizens, including farmers and ranchers, have to change attitudes about water.

“It will be considered a commodity and agricultural irrigation will be squeezed. We must have progressive planning to meet the challenge.”

He said water district roles will become increasingly important.

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