Texas agriculture—responsible water users

By Billy Howe

Danny Reible’s op-ed in the Houston Chronicle on May 29 was a curious mixture of “right on target” and “Hey Danny, you’ve got to be kidding.”

First of all, agriculture is committed to efficient water use, and he is correct that a public investment in developing that technology would be very productive. However, Mr. Reible is way off the mark when he suggests agricultural irrigation, which is mostly groundwater, will be responsible for future water shortages in the high-growth areas of Texas.

According to the 2012 state water plan, 67 percent of irrigated agriculture’s water use is west of I-35. Statewide, five regions are expected to account for 82 percent of the state’s population growth by 2060.  In these regions, irrigation only accounts for 34 percent of the water use demand, and it is forecast to decrease while municipal and industrial use increases.  So, reducing the water used for agricultural irrigation is not the answer to the future water needs of our major urban areas.  While it will certainly help in a few areas, there simply isn’t enough of it to make a significant impact. 

Mr. Reible said “agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting contributed only 0.6 percent to the state economy.” That figure sounds way low to me. I don’t think he considered the multiplier effect of processing, packaging and transporting those commodities. And don’t forget employment. According to the Texas Department of Agriculture, one in seven Texas jobs is dependent on agriculture.

The majority of irrigation occurs in West Texas and almost all of it is in areas where agriculture is a major economic driver. Eliminating irrigation in those areas where it’s most prevalent is a recipe for lost jobs and ghost towns.

It’s true that surface water irrigators will feel a lot of political and economic pressure in the near future. Their water use is predominantly in those high-growth regions. And, they are typically purchasing water from a river authority or water district.

Nearly 80 percent of the water used in agricultural irrigation comes from groundwater. Those who use groundwater for irrigation are not likely to be priced out of the market because most of them are in areas dependent on agriculture for their regional economies.  And, the water beneath their property is theirs. They own it.  They aren’t buying it from someone else.

Mr. Reible is also correct that agriculture can do better. With public investment and more research, we can improve efficiency and conservation.  We intend to. Agriculture has already made a lot of progress in irrigation efficiency.

In fact, agriculture has made much more progress than most municipalities in terms of conservation.  Since 1974, the number of crops irrigated in Texas has dropped 18 percent while the total amount of water used for irrigation in Texas has dropped 32 percent, according to government statistics. At the same time, productivity of irrigated farmland increased, with irrigated corn yields up 46 percent, grain sorghum up 16 percent and cotton yields more than tripled. In other words, we’re watering dramatically fewer acres with huge gains in productivity. That does not sound like an inefficient, wasteful industry.

Billy Howe is state legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau.


One Response to “Texas agriculture—responsible water users”

  1. Lloyd Huggins says:

    Reible fails to recognize a couple of key points regarding agricultural irrigation in Texas. One: irrigated rice lands in Texas provide crucial winter feeding grounds and habitat for migratory waterfowl. The water is not just used by Texas farmers; it is used by Mother Nature simultaneously. Two: The water releases from the Highland Lakes for downstream users also provide increased flow for the health of aquatic species and the riparian environment as the water makes its way to downstream agricultural users.

    As you properly pointed out, Reible also fails to recognize the great strides in water conservation already being made by agriculture. Farmers are thrifty and are market-driven. Irrigation water costs, so farmers will do whatever is cost-effective to reduce their water usage.

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