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.