Water Conservation

Water Conservation

Water Conservation on the High Plains

Water Conservation

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One can’t talk about agriculture in the Texas High Plains without including “water” in the same sentence. The Ogallala Aquifer, which has kept ag production humming for nearly a century, is running dry. The Texas Panhandle and Southern Plain are at a crisis point. Agriculture accounts for over 40 percent of the economy, including support of numerous rural communities, but depends heavily on irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer at non-sustainable withdrawal rates. Recharge is negligible and well output is dropping to the point that farmers are having to adopt new systems to maintain profitable survival of their businesses and the communities that depend on their economic activity.

Beginning in 1997, SSARE-funded long-term systems research began in the Texas High Plains to conserve water and other natural resources while assuring a level of economic profit to sustain individuals and communities of this region. Initial comparisons of a cotton monoculture and an integrated cotton-forage-stocker steer system demonstrated over 10 years that the integrated approach used about 25 percent less irrigation water, about 40 percent less nitrogen fertilizer, was similar in profitability, and increased soil organic carbon, soil microbial activity, reduced soil erosion, and had numerous other benefits compared with the cotton monoculture.

That research, lead by Texas Tech University, continues today to better understand biological, environmental, social, economic, and policy issues impacting agricultural sustainability in the Southern High Plains; and to translate research into adoption of more sustainable practices. The research arm of the effort (Texas Coalition for Sustainable Integrated Systems) focuses on the integration of forage-based beef production into the region’s predominantly row-crop agriculture as a means of reducing water extraction from the Ogallala Aquifer, building soil organic matter, stabilizing soil from wind erosion, and diversifying income. Research at the Texas Tech University New Deal Farm is a source of information pertaining to grazing systems that help meet producers’ goals of stretching water supplies and reverting cropland to perennial grasses in ways that meet their economic goals.

The outreach arm of the effort (Texas Alliance for Water Conservation) partners with producers in the High Plains region to demonstrate improved irrigation practices. TAWC produces field days, field walks, conferences, radio and TV reports, Twitter and Facebook messages, web-based management tools, and printed fact sheets to reach a diverse rural and urban populace on using practical technologies to sustain agriculture and communities.

Water Conservation in the Texas High Plains: A systems research model of sustainable agroecosystems

grass and cotton

The importance of crops, forages, and livestock to the Texas High Plains has highlighted the need to develop systems that enhance profitability, improve conservation of soil and water resources, and expand marketing opportunities for a more sustainable agricultural system. In the late 1990s, a committed and dedicated team of researchers from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX took one of the first steps to begin exploring a systems approach to implement agricultural production alternatives that use less water. Researchers received a SSARE grant in 1997 to jump start those efforts. The objective of the initial SARE grant, (LS97-082), “Sustainable Crop/Livestock Systems in the Texas High Plains,” was simple: Demonstrate that farmers can save water through an alternative production approach to monoculture cotton.

Texas Alliance for Water Conservation: Farmers teaching farmers how to manage water like money


In 2004, information generated from a SSARE-funded research grant project (LS02-131), “Forage and Livestock Systems for Sustainable High Plains Agriculture,” was the basis in obtaining a $6.2 million grant from the Texas Water Development Board to test concepts of integrated systems in an on-farm demonstration project. The Texas Alliance for Water Conservation (TAWC) was born. For over a decade, producers across the Texas High Plains have been educating other producers on production methods and new technologies that help save water.

Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America's Southern region. This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, through Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, under sub-award numbers: LS97-082, LS02-131, LS08-202, LS10-229, LS11-238, LS14-261, LS17-286, GS02-012, GS07-056, GS15-152 and GS18-196. USDA is an equal opportunity employer and service provider. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.