The thirsty soils of the central plains are seeing less precipitation, putting at risk the Ogallala Aquifer, a vital underground water supply for agriculture and municipal use.
“It’s the water source for the bread basket of the United States,” said Harold Grall, a farmer in Moore County, Texas, who recognizes this aquifer’s importance and uses conservation to use water wisely.
Grall’s story and other farmers like him were recently highlighted in “This American Land,” a national public television series. His story was aired in a segment of the show’s first episode titled “Critical Aquifer.”
The episode highlights farmers in the region, who use conservation to minimize water use and prevent it from drying up in the future.
The aquifer covers about 170,000 square miles stretching from South Dakota to the Texas panhandle. The eight-state region is home to more than one million acres of irrigated cropland.
According to the Texas Water Development Board, Northern Texas is the most stressed section of the aquifer, where it is cut off by previously drained areas to the east and the Pecos River to the west, preventing the recharge of water from the Rocky Mountains.
As farming became more profitable in recent years, increased development led to more demands on an already stressed aquifer. With new demands, the water availability is decreasing during the crop growing season.
Many farmers use water efficiently with the help of conservation practices. The challenge is how to remain profitable while leaving water behind for the next generation.
“We can’t be stopping and waiting two or three years before we start acting,” Grall said about why he works with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to receive technical and financial assistance on his 8,500 acre farm.
Grall, with NRCS’ help, is able to expand his conservation efforts serving as a field demonstration site or classroom to fellow farmers. Currently, he is proving his innovative talents by growing about 200 bushels of corn on just 12 inches of water.
“They are doing everything they can to get the most use out of every drop,” said Mike Caldwell, NRCS district conservationist in Moore County about the farmers he works with. He spends about 90 percent of his time assisting producers like Grall on efforts to conserve water.
As each drop becomes more scarce, Moore County and other central plains farmers have started welcoming conservation practices as an important tool in making positive changes to the critical water shortage.
“If we are going to farm in this area, we have got to change the way we are doing things,” said David Ford, a third-generation farmer in Moore and Harley counties.
Ford uses strip tilling instead of conventional tilling, because leaving organic matter on the ground helps keep the water from running off the fields and retains the soil’s moisture and beneficial bacterial structures, according to soil scientists.
“We have to be better stewards of the land, because there is not going to be any more of it,” Ford said.
One thing is for sure – agriculture depends on water. Farmers, scientists and others are striving to learn better ways of reducing agricultural water use while keeping the land productive through conservation practices.
Learn more about NRCS and conservation by visiting your local field office. Or watch conservation in action by viewing this segment, “Critical Aquifer.”