Water in Texas: Top 10 irrigation facts

By Mike Barnett

I’ve been writing a lot about water in Texas lately with good reason.

The drought brought home the reality of water shortages in our state and accusations are flying over who is using water and how much. Many of them are aimed at irrigated agriculture. Expect the finger-pointing to increase as we get ready for a new legislative session in Austin.

The Texas Water Resources Institute recently released a study on the status and trends of irrigated agriculture in Texas.  It completely blows out of the water allegations that Texas agriculture is a “water waster” and that irrigated agriculture is “stealing water” from urban areas.

The report is something everyone in the state should read. It also gives farmers and ranchers plenty of facts and figures in the upcoming water debate. Here are 10 you should remember:

    1) Groundwater is by far the source of most agricultural irrigation in the state, accounting for 86 percent of the irrigated acres (in 2000). Surface water made up 11.6 percent and the remaining 2.4 percent used a mix of groundwater and surface water.
    2) The state’s irrigated acres are concentrated in those areas that have good soil and available water. Most irrigation is in West and South Texas, far from the state’s major population centers in Central, North and Southeast Texas.
    3) Annual estimated water use in Texas totaled 16.2 million acre-feet in 2009, with about 57 percent used for irrigation. Total annual irrigation has remained steady, averaging approximately 9.5 million acre-feet since the late 1970s.
    4) While statewide agricultural irrigation rates have stayed relatively constant since the mid-70s, per-acre corn yields have increased by 62 percent since 1975 while cotton yields have more than doubled.
    5) Because of the adoption of technology, irrigation efficiency has gone from 60 percent to 88-95 percent in much of the state today, allowing Texans to get much more value and agricultural output from its water.
    6) On a per acre basis, the rate of irrigation application in Texas has averaged less than 18 inches annually since the 1950s. A three-year study in College Station found average households supplemented rainfall by applying 22 inches of water annually to their lawns and landscapes.
    7) The statewide economic value directly derived from irrigated agriculture was $4.7 billion in 2007.
    8) Agriculture, as part of the broader food and fiber sector, accounts for 9 percent of the Texas economy.
    9) Projections in the 1970s suggested the Ogallala Aquifer would be exhausted by the early 2000s. Producers responded by using newly developed efficient technologies and those projections did not come true.
    10) There are opportunities for irrigated agriculture to become even more efficient through improved irrigation scheduling, adoption of drought tolerant crop varieties, developing improved irrigation water management technologies and continued adoption of conservation practices.

So here’s the conundrum. Aquifer levels are declining, especially in the Ogallala Aquifer, which supports agriculture in the Texas High Plains. Surface water faces increasing demands. Rapid development and expansion of urban areas are expected with many converted to residential areas with significant quantities of irrigated landscapes.  The population of Texas is projected to double in the next 50 years. People need water to drink. Industry will need water to provide jobs.

At first glance, it’s easy to say cut irrigated agriculture water out of the equation. It’s a huge target. But consider the consequences.

  • It takes water to grow food and fiber. Irrigation is critical to our food production and food security.
  • Convert all the irrigated farmland in the Texas High Plains to dryland farming for a net loss of $1.6 billion in gross output, over $616 million in value added and nearly 7,300 jobs. That story repeats across the state when irrigated agriculture is targeted.
  • Agriculture irrigation has doubled crop yields, improved economic viability and sustained communities. Farming and ranching is the seedstock for the broader food and fiber sector, which accounts for 9 percent of the state’s economy.

Challenges abound when it comes to water. Will Texans cooperate and solve problems? Or will the blame gamers take out a vital segment of our economy, and even more important, our food security?

Stay tuned. The next few months will be very interesting.

Mike Barnett

Director of Publications
Texas Farm Bureau
I’m a firm believer that farmers and ranchers will continue to meet the needs of a growing world population by employing equal measures of common sense, conservation and technology.
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2 Responses to “Water in Texas: Top 10 irrigation facts”

  1. So who couldn’t have seen this coming? Certainly didn’t take long for those chickens to come home to roost. It was a perfect storm of right of capture laws, oil/gas well fracking, population growth and drought. With one well in the Eagle Ford for example, requiring as much as 13 million gallons of fresh water and with thousands of wells the outcome was completely predictable. Maybe now that the situation has become so critical we can collectively put aside our claims of entitlement and for the collective good go back and review some viable solutions that could still help the situation. Everyone has an obligation to conserve water and do not have the right to waste it. Water is a life giving commodity and has to be shared by all Texans. No one should ever have a superior right to water. Wasting water should be a state crime with penalties of fines and jail time. Anyone caught wasting water no matter if they live in the city, put water down an injection well or irrigate irresponsibly should be subject to the penalties. Drilling waste water should be recycled and injection wells banned with heavy oversight to assure compliance. Economical recycling solutions are currently available making that practice out dated and unaffordable. Interestingly enough, that technology came out of research and development for the algae industry. Repealing right of capture laws is another necessary action. T. Boone Pickens was stopped from pumping the Ogallala Aquifer dry and piping it to the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex. If the right of capture law had been in effect the Ogallala would already be dry. Other steps would be to have both surface and subsurface water regulated by the TECQ. Another is to build desalinization plants and pipelines to the major reservoirs. If we can build oil/gas pipelines all over the state then a network of water pipelines shouldn’t be a problem. If these types of drastic actions are not quickly done it’s going to be game over for all of us and for Texas.The era of unlimited free water is over.

    • Mike Barnett says:

      J.C., you are right that everyone has an obligation to conserve water. But it sounds like your solution is to give complete control of groundwater to the state. I think a better solution is to continue toward conservation measures, let the groundwater conservation districts do their jobs and seek new sources of water such as desalinization plants. All of this needs to be done while ensuring private ownership of groundwater–as was done in SB 332. Thanks for your comment.

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