Uvalde, Texas, farmer J. Allen Carnes offers a personal perspective on what limited water supply means to agriculture. Instead of planting crops that fit marketing objectives, he’s had to switch to crops that would produce on the amount of water available. That’s meant cutting cabbage production from 1,400 acres down to 544 and increasing winter wheat from 800 to more than 1,800 acres.
Carnes was the final morning speaker at yesterday’s opening session of the 26th annual Texas Plant Protection Association Conference.
Water was the conference focus, and Carnes joined university and industry speakers to delve into the challenges agriculture faces in a state and region where multi-year droughts have caused heavy economic losses, and the potential for continuing drought, increased competition for water and rising production costs pose huge obstacles to farmers, ranchers and the industries that support them.
“TPPA has always attracted diverse groups to discuss salient issues,” said Dr. William Dugas, acting vice chancellor and dean for Texas A&M AgriLife, in welcoming remarks to the near capacity crowd at the Brazos Center in Bryan, Texas.
Water is a salient issue for the times. Sustainability is crucial, he added, as is maintaining the economy, protecting the environment and “feeding the world. Drought is still an issue in Texas and will continue to be an issue.”
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Dugas said technology, including improved irrigation and production methods as well as new varieties, will be critical for efficient water management.
Travis Miller, interim director for state operations for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, put today’s drought issue into a historical perspective. “We’re not talking about water but the lack of water,” he said. “Drought is no stranger to Texas.”
He said tree ring observations show severe periods of drought dating back almost 500 years. “Historically, we’ve had droughts that far exceed what we’ve seen so far, so we need to be aware of the possibilities.”
That’s a sobering thought considering the staggering cost of the latest drought cycle, more than $22 billion in ag enterprise losses. He said the beef industry was hit particularly hard and will be years recovering. In 2005, Texas cattlemen reported 5.35 million head of cattle. In 2014 that number had dropped to 3.91 million, a 27 percent decrease since 2005. He said “irreparable damage” to forage across the state may limit expansion.
“And that $22 billion loss to ag may be small compared to the ripple effect across the economy,” he said.
Carlos Rubinstein, chairman of the Texas Water Development Board, said recent drought has spurred legislation, including an amendment passed last year by 73 percent of voters to tap a Texas “Rainy Day Fund” to implement the state’s water plan.
The result of that action is the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT).
That state plan, which Rubinstein said serves as a model to other states, outlines a path to provide adequate water to a Texas population that will double by 2060. To reach that goal, the plan includes three elements—conservation and re-use, using water already available in better ways and identifying and developing new water sources.
SWIFT funds will be used to leverage loans to develop approved water projects. The water development board is currently accepting applications (until Feb.3). Loans are not made to for-profit entities. Water districts will play an important role.
Rubinstein said not less than 20 percent of the funds will be used for conservation and not less than 10 percent will be used for agriculture and rural water. “That’s a floor, not a ceiling and I hope we can go above that.”
Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said Texas has the dubious distinction of being the only state in the country that has a “Triple Whammy” from Pacific and Atlantic oscillations (including the El Niño and La Niña effects). All three of those phenomena affect weather in Central Texas.
“Texas is susceptible to drought, especially now,” he said. “We are in a prolonged period of drought and are likely to see more drought in the future.
“Scientists are working to develop better means of forecasting drought periods,” he said.
Conservation will be a crucial part of maintaining agricultural productivity, said Kevin Wagner, associate director of the Texas Water Resource Institute, an operational unit of Texas A&M AgriLife. Agriculture accounts for the biggest chunk of water use, 56 percent for irrigation on 6.2 million acres using an average of 10 million acre feet.
Of those systems, 78 percent are sprinklers and 87 percent of those are low pressure, efficient systems. Furrow irrigation accounts for 13 percent of irrigated acreage, flood for 6 percent and subsurface drip or trickle systems just 3 percent (the most efficient).
Meeting the increased challenges of competition, drought and population growth will require changes, Wagner said. “We see opportunities to conserve.”
He said improving canal systems, adding liners, for instance, will save water. On-farm irrigation may be improved by reducing the amount of flood irrigation by 25 percent. Also, the 13 percent of irrigation systems not in a low pressure system may be upgraded. Expanding drip irrigation is also an option as is encouraging conservation tillage.
Wagner also recommends that farmers use better irrigation scheduling techniques, such as evapotranspiration (ET) guidelines. “Less than 10 percent of farmers now use advanced water management tools,” he said.
Crop genetics also will play a role and has already contributed to higher yields for cotton and corn with no additional water.
Texas AgriLife researcher Jim Bordovsky said irrigation timing offers opportunities to save water with little effect on cotton yields. He said tests comparing full season maximum water regimes with other methods using combinations of moderate and low application rates during certain growth stages showed that early water applications add to the per-pound cost for water but add little to yield.
He also studied crop rotation as a means of managing water and found the best water value was realized in cotton two years after the alternate crop.
Drip irrigation studies also show improved water use efficiency, and during drought years using a skip-row pattern and planting over the drip tape improved germination.
Shannon Hauf, Monsanto, said industry is working on technology to improve water use efficiency. “We want to select varieties that will produce more on rain-fed acres,” she said. “More acres are rain-fed or under less than maximum irrigation in Texas than are (fully) irrigated. We want to know how to use less water.”
She said 60 percent of the cotton grown in Texas is grown with limited water. “The challenges include limited rainfall, limited irrigation capacity, irrigation costs, and caps on irrigation use. We want to select varieties that fit in those limited water resource environments.”
All the resources, programs, research and innovations may be necessary to allow Carnes and other farmers to remain productive. Carnes farms in the Winter Garden area and irrigates from the Edwards Aquifer. The area is currently in a stage 5 drought and his usual 2-acre-feet allotment has been reduced by 44 percent, to 1.12 acre feet. To make that work, he has increased wheat acreage significantly, drastically reduced cabbage acreage and is doing all he can to “stretch every drop of water as far as we can stretch it.”