Thursday, July 25, 2024

Water Efficiency: Southwest Farmers Meet The Challenge

By Tommy Horton

When agricultural researchers in the Southwest look into the future, one issue stays near the top of the list as a major priority. No matter what happens in any other ag-related area, all roads lead back to this one fact.

Water availability.

Without this one resource, farming doesn’t exist. And nowhere has this become a bigger issue than in the Southwest part of the Cotton Belt where droughts have become a way of life through the years.

In Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, this has always been a major topic of discussion dating back to the Dust Bowl days of the 1920s and 1930s. Nobody is seriously comparing today’s environment to what moviegoers saw in that famous 1940 movie, “Grapes of Wrath,” which starred Henry Fonda.

However, when drought and new water restrictions become part of the conversation, it’s only natural for producers to become concerned.

Even though water issues can be found in all parts of the Cotton Belt, they seem to receive additional attention in the Southwest where more than half of the country’s cotton is produced in Texas.

It is not surprising that New Mexico State University and the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) will co-host a conference in Santa Fe, N.M., on Aug. 7 to address this issue.

Serious Impact Of Drought

The drought of 2011 had an impact on all of the Southwest, but particularly in Texas where cotton yields were reduced by about 50 percent to 3.5 million bales.

Since last summer, several national stories have called attention to the growing water crisis in the region. One report published by the National Academy of Science says the shortage of water in California and Texas could eventually have dire consequences because of a continued reliance on irrigated agriculture.

Stephanie Walker of the New Mexico State University Extension Plant Sciences Department is helping coordinate the conference, which will have attendees from 13 states and several Pacific Island countries. While the theme of the conference will center on water and the future of agriculture in the Southwest, Walker expects a healthy exchange of ideas beneficial to all parties.

“I won’t hold my breath that we will all get on the same page on this issue,” she says. “But we’ll know what we have to do.

“Not only do we have serious water concerns here in the Southwest, but on island nations they have similar water issues. Water resources are very important throughout the world.”

Relevant Topics

Some of the topics at the conference include: Balancing ag and urban water use, rainwater harvesting, low-water-use crops, low-tech irrigation strategies and renewable-energy technology for water pumping.

Although the water battle between rural and urban interests has been going on for many years, Walker is convinced that common ground must be achieved.

“Long-term water conservation and use efficiency are in everyone’s best interests,” she says. “Whether you are involved in the agricultural industry or living in a city, everyone needs to come together on this for the long-term benefit of our society.”

Those are optimistic words to describe an issue that pits expanding urban population needs against farming interests. Both sides need reliable water sources.

Finding agreement can be one of the most challenging exercises imaginable. An outsider only has to look at the San Joaquin Valley of California to see how volatile emotions can become. In the SJV, water issues are often influenced by factors such as winter snowpack, water allocations, politics and even the preservation of a small species of fish called the delta smelt.

Proactive Attitudes Persist

Nobody in the Southwest – and particularly Texas – is being complacent.

Rick Kellison, project director for the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation (TAWC), has been involved in water issues since 2005, and he is hopeful that producers across the state are more informed on how to implement water conservation measures.

“My first thought is that producers here and elsewhere in the United States are the best conservationists and environmentalists anywhere,” he says. “They have to be that way because that’s their mechanism for living on the farm.”

Kellison says it’s a necessity that a farmer know what the water and nutrient needs are for the crop.

“Producers do a great job in this regard and have always done a great job,” he says. “Having said that, I think we are at a pivotal point in this discussion because we’ve been in the middle of a serious drought, and there has definitely been a decrease in the finite water source.”

It’s interesting to see how this issue has changed in just two years. For example, in the June 2010 issue of Cotton Farming, many Texas ag officials discussed how the Ogallala Aquifer’s water levels must be protected by implementing efficient water-use policies on the farm.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 12.21.41 PMAs it turns out, there were no major drought problems in 2010, and a recordbreaking cotton crop was produced in Texas. Kellison says nobody felt any urgency to deal with water conservation. Not surprisingly, the mood changed during and after the drought-plagued 2011 crop season.


“I see a greater awareness about things we can do better in water conservation,” he says. “And I’m not just talking about irrigation application. I’m talking about the entire thought process in areas such as tillage practices and anything that can seriously affect water use.”

Kellison is particularly excited about new broad-based irrigation technology that will impact genetics, tillage, irrigation methods and timing. He also foresees other scientific breakthroughs that can help determine the rooting depth of the crop, fertility zones and identify where moisture depletion has occurred in a field.

Technology will once again help solve an important problem that confronts agriculture.

Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or

Last Year’s Drought Was A Wakeup Call For Ag

The recordbreaking drought in Texas in 2011 is remembered in different ways.

For the farmer, it was a matter of survival. For Jim Bordovsky, Texas AgriLife research scientist and engineer, it presented an opportunity for a “teaching moment.”

He isn’t suggesting that producers haven’t always been aware of water efficiency on their farms. But, he’s confident that those same farmers now realize how important even small amounts of early season rain are for irrigated production.

Bordovsky is also seeing more situations where producers are considering different irrigation systems such as LEPA and subsurface drip and trying not to spread water too thinly by going to half-circle irrigation.

“I think everyone is being more careful on when to apply water,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen any continuous irrigation. That in itself tells me that producers are quite concerned.”

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