The Ogallala Aquifer is buried deep throughout the High Plains. The water flowing underneath is as good as gold for farmers in the region, serving as a lifeline in years when the drought and Texas heat wither crops.
It is a critical resource for the agricultural industry — not just in Texas, but in the other seven states that it lies beneath.
“At the end of the day, the Ogallala is propping us all up,” said Eric Simpson, the farm manager at At’l Do Farms on the outskirts of Lubbock. “No matter what, I’ll probably have to use water from it this summer because, without that, I don’t think we could grow much in West Texas unless it’s a cactus or a mesquite tree.”
Following several years of dry land and hardly any rainfall, farmers like Simpson in the High Plains are depending more on the aquifer. And that has consequences that are coming into focus.
On the heels of Texas’ worst drought in a decade, a report from the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District shows water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, have dropped consistently in the region over the last five years. More than 1,300 wells were measured earlier this year, including ones from the smaller Edwards-Trinity Aquifer, all of which show varying degrees of decline. The biggest decrease was in Parmer County, which sits on the New Mexico border in between Lubbock and Amarillo, where there was a decline of 1.30 feet in the water levels.
This has caused concern for the future of agriculture in the High Plains. Scientists have found that climate change has pushed average temperatures higher in Texas, making heat waves and droughts worse. And with the warm temperatures continuing at night — and offering less relief — it’s harder to get the bountiful crops of cotton, grapes and corn the region is known for.
“Out here in West Texas, the one thing that they’re so dependent on to grow crops is water,” said Melanie Barnes, a senior research associate in geosciences for Texas Tech University. “That’s the one thing that really controls whether you can economically survive out here.”
With only a finite amount of water to be shared throughout the U.S. High Plains region — Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wyoming and South Dakota — the Ogallala running dry could have devastating consequences nationwide. The aquifer provides water for about 30 percent of the nation’s irrigation systems, boosting up the farms and ranches that supply a quarter of the nation’s agricultural production. And for 82 percent of the people who live within the aquifer’s boundaries, it supplies their drinking water too.
With agriculture and domestic use, the aquifer is not naturally refilling from precipitation nearly as fast as the water is being taken out. According to the National Climate Assessment, the groundwater is being pumped for irrigation 10 times faster than it can be refilled from rain or snow.
Without rainfall in the Texas High Plains, the chances the aquifer can recharge are low.
“Some areas of the aquifer, you have a lot of water because of the Rocky Mountains, or you don’t have very much because you’re up on the banks of the river instead of the middle of it,” Barnes explained. “We do not get that recharge from runoff.”
The region was hit with rainfall for weeks, particularly in the Panhandle, where the national weather service reported between 10-20 inches of rain, which has caused flooding. But that doesn’t mean the ground is suddenly moisturized and ready for a good growing season — extremely dry, cracked soil can’t retain water and instead causes runoff.
In recent years, Simpson’s family has started incorporating regenerative agriculture techniques at At’l Do Farms, such as growing various crops year-round, that help the soil hold the water when it does rain.
“The rain can be like a silver bullet for our problems as farmers if we’re ready for it,” Simpson said. “But most of the time, we’re not ready for a big rain because we’re thinking about how to make one crop work really well.”
Simpson’s family grows corn, a crop known for needing a lot of water to grow, and runs the At’l Do Farms Corn Maze, an annual attraction near Shallowater, just 12 miles outside of Lubbock, that brings in visitors from around the state. It’s become a huge part of their business, so they notice when there’s a change, like stunted corn that can’t fill the maze.
“My dad and I kept talking about how, year after year, our corn is getting shorter,” Simpson recalled. “We’re having to overwater it, and the Ogallala is depleting to such an extent that the quality is becoming poor and making the soil more unhealthy. The soil just turns into a brick.”
The family decided to experiment last year, using cover crops to put various nutrients back into the soil. They planted sorghum-sudangrass, a substitute that looks like corn but doesn’t need as much water and can survive the drought.
It wasn’t easy, Simpson said, but those changes turned their parched land into a vibrant mix of plants and vegetables.
“Even with the one good rain we got that summer, our crop grew taller, greener and denser than any corn we’ve grown,” Simpson said. “Seeing that made me realize this can be done.”
Because of the declining aquifer levels, the mindset in the plains has become more focused on conservation. The High Plains Underground Water Conservation District publishes information on groundwater availability regularly, and most of its audience is connected with agriculture in some way. Informing people outside of agriculture, such as business and real estate developers, hasn’t been an easy task.
”It’s important for everyone to promote awareness of this,” said Jason Coleman, manager for the HPWD. “If you’re building a new shop for your business or whatever it is, you’re going to rely on groundwater. You need to have some understanding of the water resources.”
At’l Do Farms has already planted some crops this year. Simpson plans on growing cotton, broomcorn and pumpkins to prepare for the visitors this fall. He’s confident his family can keep the business going in a sustainable manner, even if the drought amps back up.
“Hopefully as farmers, we just pay attention to what our environment is telling us,” Simpson said. “Look for patterns and how the plants are responding to what we’re doing, and then make changes the next year as best we can.”
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