“We’re doing everything that we know possible that we can do to conserve water,” Grall, a corn farmer, said as his pickup bounced toward the 120-acre field.
He planted the cornfield later than most, in an effort to capture more summer rainfall and reduce the need for Ogallala water. He also did not water it before planting the corn seeds, a risky move for land parched after three years of drought.
Grall’s cornfield is part of a closely watched demonstration project aimed at showing farmers how to use less irrigation water on their crops. It was put together by a groundwater authority in the Panhandle that strictly limits the amount of Ogallala water each farmer can pump. The project reflects the harsh reality that has taken hold across the drought-stricken state: farmers, who account for more than half of the water used in Texas, must learn to do more with less, just like cities and industrial plants.
“The Ogallala is a mined aquifer,” said Danny Krienke, a board member of the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District, an authority that spans eight counties and is overseeing the demonstration project. “That means we’re pumping out more than what is being recharged. And agriculture is a big water user. So we have a big responsibility to conserve.”
The North Plains district began its demonstration project in 2010, at a cost of about $300,000 per year. Financing comes from the district as well as state and federal agencies. The idea was to have farmers grow corn, the most common crop in the district, with a little over half the water they would normally sprinkle on a field — while still remaining profitable.
The goal of the demonstration project is to use methods that can be applied immediately and are also cost-effective. One example: watering more efficiently using pivot sprinklers, rather than water-saving technologies like drip irrigation, which farmers say are too expensive.
“We can’t wait 10, 15, 20 years for something to come out that might come out in the future,” said Steve Walthour, the district’s general manager. “We need to do something now.”
This year, 11 farmers are participating (four, including Krienke and Grall, are district board members). They are using methods like planting in dry rather than prewatered earth, leaving larger spaces between plants and leaving old stalks in the fields even as new plants spring up, a technique that can hold the earth’s moisture longer.
Another key is new technology that allows farmers to use soil sensors to obtain more precise information about moisture and sprinkler performance — and read it remotely.
“I can pull out my phone right now and I can show you what every one of mine are doing,” said Brian Bezner, a North Plains board member from Dallam County, scrolling through soil moisture and sprinkler data on his smartphone, miles from his farm.
Farmers’ motivation for saving water stems from the North Plains district’s regulations on pumping from the Ogallala. The massive aquifer, which underlies land from Texas to South Dakota, has dropped more in Texas than in any other state, according to a national groundwater study released last month by the United States Geological Survey.
Annually, the North Plains district measures more than 400 monitor wells, which were expected to show an average decline of about 3.5 feet most recently, said Dale Hallmark, a district hydrologist. That is substantial, and reflects the water-intensive nature of crops like corn.
North Plains has imposed strict limits on the amount of water that farmers can pump from wells on their own land, something more Texas groundwater districts are doing.
“Really, the only incentive to conserve water is the allocation by the water district,” Grall said.
Water is free to Texas farmers who draw it from their own ground, and the cost of energy to pump it from the aquifer is low because natural gas is cheap.
The North Plains district first imposed pumping limits in 2005 and tightened them in 2009. In 2005, it also began phasing in requirements for some wells to have meters. Both moves were controversial at the time. A larger groundwater district just south of North Plains, the 16-county High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, has struggled in its attempts to impose metering requirements and pumping limits.
North Plains officials “just were a little further ahead of the curve,” said David Brauer, who manages the Ogallala Aquifer program for a United States Department of Agriculture research laboratory in the Panhandle town of Bushland.
A group from the Middle Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, southwest of Fort Worth, went to see Grall’s demonstration field last year and came away impressed.
“I know my board president said it’d be nice to be able to do something like that here at home,” said Joe Cooper, the general manager of the Middle Trinity district.
Some North Plains farmers have been adopting the practices shown by the demonstration, according to Walthour. He has gotten calls from farmers interested in the soil-moisture sensors. The practice of leaving more residue, like old stalks, on the land is also becoming more widespread, he said.
There are hurdles to the wider adoption of some techniques, however. Grall cannot get crop insurance on his demonstration field because it was planted after June 1, a cutoff date. Although he would have liked to have planted other fields late, hoping to catch more summer rainfall, he dared not take the risk.
The biggest challenge has been drought. In 2011, the driest year in recorded Texas history, some demonstration efforts had to be abandoned. The demonstration project aims to have farmers produce 200 bushels of corn per acre, while allowing pivot sprinklers to spray the field with only 12 inches of water, substantially less than usual.
The Panhandle is dry again this year. One farmer, David Ford, has had just 1.5 inches of rain on his land since November.
“That’s one thing that makes it hard trying to stay inside your 12 inches of water,” Ford said.
Another challenge, North Plains officials say, is that high crop prices have prompted farmers to plant additional fields, so water use across the district has increased.
The district must allow the farmers to drill some wells. But “what that relates to down the road is maybe greater cuts for everybody to share,” said Bob Zimmer, a district board member.