From The Associated Press (Tammy Webber):
For decades, the Texas Panhandle was green with cotton, corn and wheat. Wells drew a thousand gallons (3,785 liters) a minute from the seemingly bottomless Ogallala aquifer, allowing farmers to thrive despite frequent dry spells and summer heat.
But groundwater that sustained generations is drying up, creating another problem across the Southern plains: Without enough rain or groundwater for crops, soil can blow away — as it did during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
“We wasted the hell out of the water,” says Muleshoe, Texas, farmer Tim Black, recalling how farmers irrigated when he was a kid. Water flooded furrows or sprayed in high arcs before farmers adopted more efficient center-pivot systems.
His grandfather could reach water with a post-hole digger. Black is lucky to draw 50 gallons (189 liters) a minute from wells up to 400 feet (122 meters) deep.
Now farmers are facing tough choices, especially in parts of Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
Some are growing less-thirsty crops or improving irrigation. Others, like Black, are replacing some cash crops with cattle and pastureland.
And more are planting native grasses that go dormant during drought, while deep roots hold soil and green with the slightest rain…
Black, a former corn farmer, plants native grasses on corners of his fields, as pasture for cattle and between rows of wheat and annual grass.
The transition to cattle, he hopes, will allow his oldest son to stay on the land Black’s grandparents began plowing 100 years ago. His younger son is a data analyst near Dallas…
More than half the currently irrigated land in portions of western Texas, eastern New Mexico and the Oklahoma Panhandle could be lost by the end of the century, according to a study last year. And the central part of the aquifer could lose up to 40% of irrigated area by 2100.
Those losses might be slowed as farmers adapt to lower water levels, researchers say. But the projections underscore the need for planning and incentives in vulnerable areas.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is prioritizing grasslands conservation in a “Dust Bowl Zone” in parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
But reestablishing native vegetation in the sandy soil over the Ogallala has proven difficult where irrigation ceased on former Kansas farmland. The same is true on land outside the Ogallala previously irrigated with river water, including in Colorado’s Arkansas River Valley.
Extended periods of drought that plagued the Southwest over the past 20 years likely will continue, says meteorologist Brad Rippey with the USDA.
So farmers may need to use some remaining groundwater to reestablish native grasses, says study co-author Meagan Schipanski, an associate professor of soil and crop sciences at Colorado State University.