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New regs, technology will prolong irrigation

Key to water legislation is to maintain local control. Significant decline noted in the Ogallala aquifer. Improving efficiency with technology will be crucial.  

New technology, along with new groundwater conservation district regulations, will help High Plains farmers prolong their ability to irrigate cropland.

“Back in 2005, we could see a significant decline in the Ogallala aquifer, so we passed legislation (HB1763) asking groundwater conservation districts to develop plans to increase the number of years to maintain irrigated agriculture in Texas,” says Texas State Senator Robert Duncan, who represents Texas’ 28th District, which encompasses much of the High Plains area. He spoke at a Texas Alliance for Water Conservation (TAWC) field day at Muncy.

The key to water legislation is to maintain local control, Duncan says. “We didn’t want Austin, state government, messing in water business.”

Consequently, the legislature charged groundwater conservation districts to “come up with a desired use plan for the next 50 years. Most came up with something like a 50/50 plan,” Duncan says. That’s 50 percent of the current amount of water available in 50 years.

“Some groundwater conservation districts came up with different plans, but the key is that they determined ‘this is where we want to go,’” he says. “The final product was a collaboration between groundwater conservation districts and producers. Not everyone agrees, but they set goals.”

Duncan says collaboration and compromise will be “the only way to maintain irrigation agriculture — we are trying to put water conservation policies in the hands of the people.”

That goal was the genesis for creating groundwater conservation districts, he says.

“We knew years ago that High Plains irrigation agriculture was at risk. The High Plains Water Conservation District Number 1 was the first. The key is still local control and elected officials.”

The state passed Senate Bill 1 in 1997 to implement a statewide water study. “We made sure that groundwater conservation districts would be locally controlled,” Duncan says.

Part of the challenge of maintaining irrigation, he says, will be improving efficiency, and adopting technology, some of which has been developed in the last five years, will be crucial to success.

“We have more accurate ways to measure crop stress,” he says. “We can determine soil profile moisture and we know better ways to manage specific crops. Maximizing inputs is what new technology is all about.”

Texas does not “want producers to lose money,” he says. “We want them to make a profit and we want to implement technology to help them.”

Duncan says TAWC efforts show farmers how technology can improve irrigation efficiency. “TAWC is transferring technology to growers. I’d like to replicate this program across the state. It shows producers how to be profitable, conserve the aquifer and prolong irrigation agriculture in the area.”

According to the TAWC website, the organization “is a unique partnership of area producers, data collection technologies, and collaborating partners that includes industries, universities, and government agencies.

“The project uses on-farm demonstrations of cropping and livestock systems to compare the production practices, technologies, and systems that can maintain individual farm profitability while improving water use efficiency, with a goal of extending the life of the Ogallala Aquifer, while maintaining the viability of local farms and communities.”

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