Drought Hastens Groundwater Depletion in the Texas Panhandle

A solitary windmill breaks the flat horizon of a Texas panhandle dawn. The windmill pumps groundwater to the surface to irrigate the region’s crops. In recent decades, farmers have turned to more powerful pumps to draw large volumes of water from greater depths. Photo by George F. Mobley/National Geographic

Persistent drought in northwest Texas is leading farmers to pump more water from the Ogallala Aquifer, hastening the depletion of this crucial water supply.

Over the last decade, from 2004-2014, average underground water levels across the 16-county High Plains Underground Water Conservation District (HPWD) have dropped 8.83 feet (2.69 meters), with three counties seeing average declines of more than 15 feet, according to data compiled by the HPWD.

Some 77 percent of that depletion occurred during the last five years, when drought gripped the region.

Among the planet’s great underground water reserves, the Ogallala Aquifer underlies portions of eight U. S. states, spans some 175,000 square miles (453,250 square kilometers), and waters 27 percent of the nation’s irrigated cropland.

Decades of heavy pumping have caused widespread depletion of the Ogallala in its southernmost reaches, which get very little recharge from current rainfall.  Since 1940, a volume of groundwater equivalent to two-thirds of the water held in Lake Erie has been depleted from the Ogallala.

For farmers in dry regions like northwest Texas, the ever-present possibility of drought creates tough choices about whether, when and what to plant, and, if drought persists through the growing season, how to make up the rainfall deficit to get their crops through to harvest.  Lacking access to surface water, many farmers in the High Plains fill that soil-moisture gap by pumping more groundwater.

In 2012, the HPWD saw groundwater levels drop an average of 2.56 feet (0.78 meters), the largest annual decline recorded in the last quarter century.

This year, drought stalks the region again. Between Jan and April, total rainfall ranged from 0.1 inch to 0.7 inches across the district’s 7.6 million acres.   The mid-July U. S. drought monitor map shows most of the panhandle under severe to exceptional drought conditions.

With natural rainfall adding so little moisture to the soil, farmers are likely again stepping up groundwater pumping to meet the water requirements of their cotton, corn and other crops.

A pivot sprinkler system irrigates a cotton field.  Photo courtesy of USDA/Wikimedia Commons
A pivot sprinkler system irrigates a cotton field. Photo courtesy of USDA/Wikimedia Commons

After a four-year hiatus, officials of the HPWD, which is based in Lubbock, have decided to resume offering growers free assessments of their growing-season water use. A more precise measure of how much water is pumped during the typical 2,000-hour irrigation season provides crucial information to both growers and water managers.

The HPWD is more proactive than most western US groundwater authorities when it comes to education, incentivizing more efficient water use, and measuring and monitoring groundwater levels, but it too has had difficulty when it comes to regulation.

The district’s plan to enforce caps on groundwater pumping in order to drive up irrigation efficiency and slow the aquifer’s depletion has been delayed due to considerable resistance and threats of lawsuits from local farmers.

Nonetheless, more efficient irrigation practices and new water management strategies are helping some growers curb their groundwater pumping, saving water, energy and money – and perhaps extending the life of the Ogallala.

Currently, there are about 4,300 subsurface drip irrigation systems in the HPWD service area.  Shifting from sprinkler to drip irrigation reduces water use by delivering more precise volumes of water directly to the roots of plants and reducing evaporation losses.

Some growers are also using sensors to monitor the soil moisture in their fields. This enables them to more accurately determine when and how much water to deliver to their crops – and can save up to 54,300 gallons per acre.  Applied more widely across the panhandle, soil-moisture sensors to better schedule irrigations combined with more efficient irrigation systems could slow the Ogallala’s depletion.

One thing is clear: the future of the Texas panhandle depends on more commitment to conservation, to creative ways of adapting to drought, and to leaving enough water underground for generations yet to come.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.
  • D

    You need to have some courage and write about what’s REALLY going on. Being in your position, you should know who T. Boone Pickens is and you should already know that he is the reason the Ogallall aquifer is being depleted. He is pumping out the water and selling it in bottles and he lobbied for laws to make it legal. Pretty simple…. and would be VERY upsetting if people in your position actually stood up and said something about it…..

    Here is a link from Business Week about it, http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2008-06-11/there-will-be-water

    In Roberts County, TX., Pickens has purchased nearly 70,000 acres, as well as the water rights to personally remove up to half of the Ogallala aquifer of which he plans to sell back to nearby residents in order to enrich himself. Much of this aquifer extends into prime farm land located in America’s bread basket. One man, T. Boone Pickens, is acquiring the ability to turn the American heartland into a dustbowl. Pickens will soon have the political power to charge so much for water, that farmers will be forced to abandon their farms and ranches in a Hunger Games rendition in which government sponsored interests will eventually become the sole purveyor of the nation’s food and water supply as the anti-humanist, Pickens, makes more money from water than he ever did with oil.

    I would appreciate a reply to hear your thoughts…

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, of course I do know who Boone Pickens is; in fact, I was on a panel with him at the University of North Texas about a decade ago to discuss/debate water issues. Pickens is a savvy businessman, and the story in Business Week (thanks for the link) points out a big problem with Texas groundwater policy: the rule of capture, which says you can pump as much water as you want from beneath your land. Until that policy is changed, Pickens can sell as much water as he wants from beneath land that he owns. Of course he has to find a buyer for the water, and then deliver it – which, as the last quote of the article points out, is costly. Dallas has reduced its water use through effective conservation measures by 22% since 2001 saving over 165 billion gallons of water. Conservation is less expensive and more environmentally sound that big new water supply projects. Lastly, Roberts County, where Pickens’ ranch is located, is not part of the High Plains Water District, which I discuss in this post. But you’re absolutely right that it sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer. Undoing the “rule of capture” and managing groundwater as a common resource that takes this and future generations into account is crucial. Water is not just a commodity, it is essential to life and, unlike oil, there are no substitutes for it.

  • john ryan

    dumb bastards are growing cotton cotton uses 50% more water than mj

    • Farmers are some of the smartest people I know, and they have to be very good business people. They respond to the incentives in front them, just like any good business person. Many cotton growers in the High Plains use drip irrigation for cotton production.

  • Rain Maker

    The fall in water level is planned, in my opinion.

    The live form you call ‘God’ made contact with man in the year 2000, Nov. 4.

    Out of all man – I am the only one he found that truly believe in God and God’s control over Earth’s climate. Source of that is Jesus to me, in my opinion.

    As Earth exist in an imperfect universe and it itself is imperfect – it has a climate that has to be maintained.

    No – water is an easy fix – I just cannot help them without the 2 part message being delivered to the Good Weather location – so the people learn.

    Hang in there as I am not perfect and struggle with life as everyone else does and have tried to get around this 2-Part message and people finding out who I am – thus a lost of my private life.

    I know – there is another side to this coin.

    It is very possible that I will be the oldest person on the planet at some point – ever. I am talking about 300 to 500 years. Direct contact with the life form you call ‘God’ has that effect, in my opinion.

    For those in need of water – pray for rain – there in nothing stopping you.

    Remember the days of Noah – thanks for your time.

  • David Carr

    Interesting article and I am impressed that you have responded to the comments. Considering the date of the article I am surprised that the record rainfall that we have had this year was not mentioned, not that it makes a long term difference, but certainly is great for this year. Also, I have noted that most new wells drilled now are are to the Santa Rosa Aquifer. I am not sure how many wells are on either aquifer, that would be interesting data. Also interesting regarding water in this region is the fast growth of wind generation and the water use that is/will be offset by that production(rather than steam generating coal plants). I also find it odd that many cities/towns regulate strictly the water use while in my understanding the water use in these cities/towns is a minor percentage compared to irrigation, refinery use, power plant use. There is much focus on the minor users and barely a mention of the large users(in the media and in conservation efforts). Don’t get me wrong, I am all for conservation of the resource, but the attention seems to be unbalanced to say the least.

    Thanks. David

  • Weldon Young

    We need to solve the water shortage instead of building more highways. In Fort Worth, we started the 27 mile Chisholm Trail Toll Road project to Cleburne, TX. at a estimated cost of $1.4 Billion. A big road out of Ft. Worth, that will carry few riders. Money better spent on TX water.

  • Robert Etheridge

    What a great article. I live in western Oklahoma in a small farming and ranching community. Our water comes from the Ogallala. In early 1900 many folks in the area had cisterns at their homes. Some were outside and some were inside. These large underground holding tanks were usually just deep holes lined with plaster or concrete. Guttering on the house or barn directed water into the cistern for daily use. Perhaps they are coming back into style. We should do all we can to conserve what is left of the Ogallala aquifer. Thanks for this eye opening article.

  • Jan

    Without water there is only dust and decay.

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