By restoring soils and grasslands, farmers in the Texas Panhandle are conserving the last water beneath their feet.
By restoring soils and grasslands, farmers in the Texas Panhandle are conserving the last water beneath their feet.
November 18, 2019
About a decade ago, Chris Grotegut realized that he had to start pumping much less groundwater out of his wells. It dawned on the cattle rancher and grain farmer that if he didn’t act soon, there may not be enough water to sustain his 11,000-acre farm in Hereford, Texas—much less to support the next generation on his land.
It’s well-documented that the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water to Grotegut’s land, is rapidly depleting. Nearby farms in the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle have experienced worse—many of their wells are going dry. As the aquifer draws lower, the future of agriculture in the region becomes an open question—and the answer depends, in part, on whether enough farmers can shift their practices to sustain on less groundwater.
“We must live within our ecological means in order to give those same ecological opportunities to the next generation,” said Grotegut, who is as much a self-taught ecologist as he is a farmer. “The ethical problem is, what are we leaving our kids?”
The Texas Panhandle is not the only region staring down the aquifer’s decline: the massive, 174,000-square-mile underground reservoir spans eight landlocked states in the Great Plains, from South Dakota to Texas. Along with being a critical source of drinking water, the aquifer supports one-fifth of all wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle in the United States. Irrigation technology, such as center pivot irrigation, patented in 1952, once helped transform the Great Plains into an agricultural oasis; flat land stretched over a seemingly endless reserve of groundwater at farmers’ disposal.
About half a century ago, that story of abundance began to take a turn as research began to show that the aquifer was in sharp decline. In 1986, Congress ordered the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor wells that draw from the Ogallala and report back annually. Since then, the reports have provided detailed evidence of the aquifer’s drawdown–in some places as much as 234 feet, according to the most recent data—due to rainwater taking much longer to flow back into the aquifer than it does to be removed.
If it were to be fully drained, it would take an estimated 6,000 years to refill. And yet that water is still being used to support agriculture at an unsustainable rate. This fact has led farmers like Grotegut to ask, “Can we hold it steady or will it just go down?”
And climate change is making it harder than ever for farmers to quit aquifer-fed irrigation. “As we get drier and have more drought, the amount of groundwater being removed just goes up,” said Venki Uddameri, the director of the Water Resources Center at Texas Tech University.
Across the aquifer, the distribution is uneven, explained Uddameri. In some places, such as Nebraska, water can easily seep back in, filtering through a porous layer of sediments. In other places, however, including parts of Texas and Kansas, the water table is hovering dangerously close to empty.
Without the Ogallala, agriculture in the breadbasket of the U.S., at least as it is currently practiced, cannot continue. Yet there’s also reason to hope. By restoring the fertility of their land, farmers in even the driest regions of the aquifer like the Texas Panhandle, have been finding that they can extend the life—and in some cases even recharge—the aquifer.
The 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment states that “major portions of the Ogallala Aquifer should now be considered a nonrenewable resource,” referring to the places where pumping outpaces the rate of return. Yet the problem with this language—especially as it translates for farmers in the region—is that it assumes a dead end.
“If we think of [the aquifer] as a nonrenewable resource, like oil and gas, then we’ll just pump it until it’s dry,” said Grotegut.
The assumption that the aquifer cannot reverse course also proliferates in headlines, such as The Washington Post’s “How Long Before the Great Plains Run Out of Water?” Fatalism like this is what Grotegut believes keeps farmers from taking action. Instead, he says that it should be talked about as “rechargeable captured water.”
Even if it’s not currently recharging, the possibility still exists.
Grotegut’s own farm is a good example. By improving the ecology on his land, he’s been able to turn the portion of the aquifer that underlies his property into a rechargeable resource.
According to data provided by the High Plains Water District, the water levels in all of the nine monitored wells on Grotegut’s land have been steadily rising. Between 2014 and 2019, one well, located on the southeast part of his property, even rose as much as 12.55 feet. On average, Grotegut’s wells rose by 6.97 feet during this period, slightly over 1 foot per year.
The work to restore his land and capture more water began in 2010. Originally, he went searching for data on the wells to see if the water table went up or down, depending on the amount he pumped. When this relationship proved to be true, he knew he had to find a way to do more dryland farming, using as little water as possible to sustain his fields. To do this, he chose to convert the farm back to native grassland “as quickly as possible,” said Grotegut.
To this end, he adopted a permaculture practice known as pasture cropping, or intermixing crops with grassland pasture. This method helps him keep more roots in the ground, building the health of the soil. And as the soil grows richer in organic matter, it can also hold more water.
Before the High Plains (and Great Plains) were covered with endless wheat farms, they were covered with native grasses. During the Great Depression, farmers flocked to the area in what’s known as “The Great Plow Up,” turning 5.4 million acres of grassland into cropland. The exposed, bare soil quickly lost its capacity to hold water, leading to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Now, the little rain that does fall in the Texas Panhandle—22 inches per year, on average—is more easily absorbed by the ground, feeding both Grotegut’s plants and the aquifer. The grasslands also help the soil naturally sequester carbon, rather than releasing it in the atmosphere and contributing to climate change.
So far, Grotegut has converted about 7,600 acres to perennial grassland. In the summer, a diverse mix of warm-season grasses including blue grama, buffalo grass, and sideoats grama (the state grass of Texas) billow in the wind. When the grasses go dormant, he then plants his winter crops, predominantly wheat. He also may plant canola, barley, oats, and triticale, along with winter legumes. The key is leaving his soil and grassland undisturbed, so it’s as close to the native ecosystem as possible. “We plant it right into the grass,” explained Grotegut.
The way water cycles through Grotegut’s land is complex. While most of the water stays in the field, what’s leftover filters into playa lakes, or ephemeral wetlands scattered throughout the Great Plains. The playa lakes, which can dry up quickly from evaporation, go through cycles of wet and dry. They are responsible for filtering and recharging an estimated 95 percent of the water to enter the southern portion of the Ogallala Aquifer, according to Texas Parks & Wildlife.
Grotegut has even been able to recharge the water in the part of the Ogallala Aquifer northwest of the playa lakes, located in the opposite direction that water flows. Between 2014 to 2019, the water levels in the northwest portion of his property went up by 2.22 feet. It saw the smallest increase out of all his wells, but still shows that recharge is possible.
After an initial loss of profits while transitioning from conventional row crops, Grotegut has seen his profits rise, due to saving on the cost of pumping groundwater and land maintenance. Despite his success, he foresees that climate change will bring more challenges. During some periods of drought, he may decide to go without irrigation and, therefore, cash crops. But his cattle and sheep will bring in money for the farm, along with grains stored during the less dry years. “Failed crops are still grazeable, just like grass is,” he said.
All this means that Grotegut must plan carefully according to weather forecasts. For instance, if a wet El Niño year is predicted, he’ll plant his winter crops aggressively so the roots soak up moisture. The following year, he’ll look for a deep-rooted plant to chase the remaining moisture, like sunflowers or cotton. Grotegut has also started rehabilitating some playa lakes on his property, which have been disturbed by earlier farming practices.
Ultimately, Grotegut sees his transformation as being rooted in soil health, “Our journey started off as a water table concern and ended up as a soil concern,” he said.
Other farmers-turned-ecologists in the region have also found that good soil practices are a key to conserving groundwater.
When the first well went dry on Barry Evans’ farm in Kress, Texas, he decided—like many of today’s farmers—to stop tilling his soil. “We always thought there needed to be clean fields, that it needed to be plowed,” he said. “But plowing breaks up the soil structure and hurts your water infiltration.”
Leaving the soil undisturbed helps build organic matter, which is critical for holding water. “There’s microorganisms, earthworms, small mammals working together to create another ecosystem in the soil,” explained Steve Swaffar, the director of the Kansas-based educational nonprofit No-Till on the Plains. “That ecosystem, when it functions well, really allows most water to infiltrate down into the soil.” Without this intact soil ecosystem, the water either runs off or remains on the surface of the soil until it evaporates in the hot Texas sun.
In addition to avoiding tilling, Evans also uses crop residue—the plant material left over after harvest—to keep moisture from evaporating out of the soil. For instance, he plants his cotton directly into sorghum residue, which acts like a soft, protective mulch.
And when Evans does use irrigation, he applies it precisely, with the aid of a moisture probe that can tell how much water made it into the soil. The results have been encouraging. “I used to get 30 to 40 pounds [of harvested crops] per inch of water applied, now I get 50 to 100 pounds per inch of water applied,” said Evans. It’s not a perfect system—he still had a well run dry earlier this year, but it’s progress.
R.N. Hopper in Petersburg, Texas, has seen similar results. He stopped tilling and began using crop residue after attending the No-Till on the Plains conference in 2006. “They were the ones that opened my eyes to the biology of the soil,” said Hopper. He keeps a continuous layer of mulch over his soil, which effectively shelters it from extreme temperatures. “It narrows the range of daily temperatures and increases microbial activity a lot, even without the addition of water,” said Hopper.
The water on his farm is now able to infiltrate the soil 10 times faster than when he was tilling, according to measurements Hopper took with a moisture probe. He’s also been able to use a third of the irrigated water he once relied on.
Hopper is now the president of the nonprofit No-Till Texas, so he can educate other farmers in the region about how to regenerate their land and farm with less water. His goal is to be continually working towards what he calls the “next evolution,” the steady improvement his land and the ecosystem above and below ground.
“You can’t have nature and have a farm. But what you can do is you can mimic natural processes,” said Hopper. This is the underlying principle of permaculture, which Hopper calls “the holy grail of agriculture.”
Hopper is also preparing for a future in which Texas panhandle farmers can no longer afford to use any irrigation. As the water table lowers, the cost of pumping goes up because it requires more energy to draw water from a greater depth.
One day he hopes to transition to the pasture cropping method Grotegut uses. He envisions ultra-wide rows of cotton in the summer and perennial grasses that would return every winter. “[The grass] wouldn’t use a lot of water, but it would create that thick mulch permanent cover and totally stabilize the soil,” said Hopper. He has yet to see consistent water recharge rates on his land, but he thinks it’s possible.
Despite the work of innovative farmers like these and others, the water levels in the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle are still steadily going down. In 2019, they dropped an average of 1.05 feet, according to the High Plains Water District. In other words, a much larger movement of farmers invested in changing their practices would be required if the Ogallala Aquifer is going to be restored.
But, as with most conservation practices, voluntary change likely won’t be enough. Policy and educational opportunities (like No-Till Texas) are also crucial.
“Everyone is trying to understand how we can keep farming businesses going with limited water,” said Rajan Ghimire, a professor of cropping systems at New Mexico State University. Ghimire is also part of a 70-person team of researchers across states and disciplines known as The Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project, which in 2016 was awarded a 4-year $10 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The goal of the research is to “help transition and develop more supportive policies moving forward,” so farmers have the resources necessary to transition to farming practices that conserve groundwater, explained Meagan Schipanski, the co-director of the project.
Building on this research, eight university-led projects, focused in part on addressing “diminishing land and water resources” through regenerative agriculture, were each awarded $10 million USDA grants earlier this month.
The USDA already provides some resources to help with the transition. For instance, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) in Texas will “reimburse farmers a portion of their expense in the installation of water-saving practices and management,” explained Darren Richardson, the Acting State Conservationist at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, in an e-mail. The program also offers technical assistance on transitioning to less water-intensive farming methods.
However, there are shortcomings in how the USDA is supporting farmers in water-stressed areas. The Risk Management Agency in most regions offers more comprehensive crop insurance coverage for irrigated crops because irrigation has historically corresponded to higher yield. Researchers involved in The Ogallala Water Organized Agriculture Project have pointed out that this system can create a “strong disincentive to reduce irrigation.”
The Risk Management Agency in Topeka, Kansas has made headway in addressing this shortcoming by establishing a limited irrigation option, which is available to farmers in the counties overlying the Ogallala aquifer.
“Producers have [said] in the past that they would have voluntarily reduced their irrigation water use but crop insurance was a barrier. By offering a limited irrigation option, that barrier is removed,” Collin Olsen, the director of the Topeka regional office of the Risk Management Agency, wrote in an-email.
Yet in many places overlying the Ogallala aquifer, including the Texas Panhandle, crop insurance is still designed for a time when groundwater was thought to be an unlimited resource.
Fortunately, farmers are leading the way in moving away from this old mindset and thinking about the long-term sustainability of the aquifer. “We’re trying to get away from a 10-year business plan to move to a 100 or 1,000-year business plan,” said Grotegut. “People are going to need to eat. [The Ogallala] should be able to work for a very long timeline.”
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