AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – The Ogallala Aquifer has fueled irrigation systems essential for the High Plains to stand resilient against historic drought conditions throughout the last century, allowing for prosperity in a region not naturally friendly to many crops or agricultural developments.  However, researchers and data have shown the aquifer is a finite resource that could see its end within the next generation. 

Compounded by increasingly-common drought conditions and other natural disasters, such as wildfires, the death knell of the Ogallala presents agricultural producers and others on the High Plains with the challenge of envisioning life and industry without relying on groundwater irrigation. Even though researchers have contended that there are no strategies moving forward that will come without a price, and significant damage is unavoidable, communities and producers are reviewing paths to extend life and livelihoods in the region; at times, by using the past to look to the future. 

A view from the past: The Dust Bowl, drought conditions, and agricultural options 

Researchers, government officials, and day-to-day agricultural producers have expressed the need for a response to the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer in order to avoid “Dust Bowl” conditions returning to the western United States. This has been illustrated in governmental actions such as the Conservation Reserve Program, as well as the identification of National Grassland Priority Zones and the “Dust Bowl Zone” by the Farm Service Agency. However, as the Dust Bowl is colloquially referred to in relation to the general economic and agricultural hardships spanning the 1930s that consisted of a significant portion of The Great Depression, it can be unclear which aspects of the Dust Bowl might be liable to return. 

AP reporter Robert Geiger coined the term “Dust Bowl” in 1935, using it to describe the drought-affected areas of the US in the aftermath of the catastrophic dust storms. 

As described by the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), the drought that covered most of the Plains for the majority of the 1930s was composed of at least four distinct drought events: 1930-31, 1934, 1936, and 1939-1940. These droughts damaged the region’s crops with deficient rainfall, high temperatures, strong winds, insects, and dust storms in a way that was not recovered from before the next event occurred, which resulted in a seemingly unbroken stretch of hardship and loss through the decade. The areas most impacted included the western third of Kansas, southeastern Colorado, the Oklahoma Panhandle, the northern two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle, and northeastern New Mexico. 

via the USDA

Researchers and historians from the NDMC and the USDA have noted that it was not only the drought events throughout the 1930s that caused the era of the Dust Bowl, but other contributing factors, including those focused on economics and production, also contributed to it. Lower crop prices in the 1920s and high input costs led many agricultural producers to work to cultivate more acreage while using fewer conservation practices for soil and water. That meant farmers were often led to use lower-quality farmland and a much more narrow variety of crops in an effort to turn a profit. 

Researchers said reduced conservation measures and increased use of poorer lands made the agricultural community more vulnerable to wind erosion, soil moisture depletion, depleted soil nutrients, and drought. These challenges to the agricultural community are those commonly thought to be at risk of return to the High Plains region and much of the western US. In some places, they have already come back in full swing, as seen in the struggles of the High Plains over the past year of facing ongoing and severe drought conditions. 

According to Agrilife Irrigation Specialist Jourdan Bell, the ability to irrigate the land was a saving grace for agricultural producers over the last century’s historic droughts, such as those in the Dust Bowl era, the 1950s, and 2011 and 2012. However, that grace may have already left the region behind. Even when researchers, such as Zachary Zembreski et. al in the Journal of Hydrology, found in 2018 that the drought frequency across the Great Plains has decreased, they’ve only gotten more severe, which still leaves the people in those regions struggling to make up for the loss. 

“But, in recent years, we have seen that we’re at the point of our water table… that producers no longer have the capacity to compensate for that.” said Bell, “So this year, we are not able to overcome that, and we have seen record crop failure in the Texas High Plains.” 

While irrigation efficiency has improved with new techniques and technology, Bell noted, more efficient irrigation is only a “short-term fix.” So long as producers are using irrigation techniques with groundwater, even if they’re successful in slowing the rate of Ogallala’s depletion, the water loss will continue. The region running out of water, altogether, is “inevitable.” 

With irrigation off the table, then, how might producers in the High Plains tend to the water needs of their crops and livestock? According to Bell and other researchers and historians, producers might look toward pre-irrigation farming techniques and day-to-day conservation and restoration efforts to salvage agriculture in the region. 

Dryland Agriculture 

As described by the NDMC, pre-Dust Bowl era agriculture in the Great Plains region was, at first, heavily misinformed. Misleading information and a lack of financial resources led many initial settlers to begin agriculture in the region with techniques more suited for the humid eastern US. However, when those initial strategies had to be abandoned, many producers were left to move into dryland agriculture. 

As explained by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University’s (TNAU) agritech resources, dryland agriculture refers to growing crops entirely under rainfed conditions. This type of agriculture can usually be grouped into three categories: 

  • Dry Farming 
    • Most common in areas where rainfall is less than 750 mm, or less than 30 inches, per year. These regions are considered arid. 
    • Dry spells during crop periods are common, and crop failures are frequent. 
  • Dryland Farming
    • Most common in areas where rainfall is above 750 mm, or above 30 inches, per year. These regions are considered semiarid. 
    • Dry spells during crop periods are not uncommon, but crop failures are less frequent. 
  • Rainfed Farming 
    • Most common in areas where rainfall is above 1,150 mm, or above 45 inches, per year. These regions are most often humid. 
    • Crop failures in these regions are rare, and more common issues faced by agricultural producers focus on drainage. 

In the High Plains, according to precipitation data from the National Weather Service, most cities and counties average less than 30 inches of precipitation per year. With that in mind, most agricultural producers would likely look toward “dry farming” in dryland agricultural practices in seeking options to produce crops in ways not dependent upon groundwater irrigation. 

Dryland agriculture, especially dry farming, focuses on conserving and utilizing the soil and its moisture content and controlling input costs to offset crop failure. This can involve reducing evaporation from the soil surface, retaining precipitation on the land, and using sturdy crops with higher drought tolerance. 

According to TNAU and researchers such as C. Giminez et. al in “Productivity in Water-Limited Environments: Dryland Agricultural Systems” and Daniel Hillel in “Soil in the Environment,” producers can increase the amount of precipitation that soaks into the soil and prevent water losses using strategies such as: 

  • Maintaining porous topsoil to prevent surface crusting and runoff;
  • Keeping a mulch cover, made of plant residues, to shield the soil against breaking down when hit by raindrops as well as to prevent evaporation;
  • Terracing and contouring the surface of a field to absorb rainfall and prevent runoff;
  • Avoiding heavily compacting the soil; 
  • Fallowing the land to collect rainwater and store it in the soil for future use; 
  • Managing weeds and pests to prevent moisture loss in deeper layers of the soil; 
  • Water-harvesting by collecting runoff; 
  • Planting and fertilizing drought-resistant, high-yield crops to utilize seasonal rains; 
  • Using crop-rotation strategies to maintain soil nutrition and moisture levels; 
  • Establishing vegetated “shelter belts” or mechanical barriers against the wind to decrease erosion and evaporation. 

Grassland restoration

Aside from crop rotation and fallowing strategies that could be employed by agricultural producers focused on crops, livestock take up a significant portion of the agricultural landscapes and lifestyles of the High Plains. As noted by David Anderson with Texas A&M Agrilife, “the only way we produced 27, or last year 28 billion, pounds of beef” was due to the number of agricultural producers in the country with small herds of cattle, including across the High Plains. Further, according to Anderson, livestock such as cattle and sheep may be the only way that producers can stand to profit from much of the grassland in the west that can’t sustain crops. 

Not only that, but according to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, mixed prairies such as those found on the High Plains naturally include varied tall and short grasses, brush, clumps of oak, and mesquite that all contribute to retaining moisture and nutrition in the soil as well as minimizing erosion. These plants and the wildlife they support also encourage moisture retention in playa lake ecosystems, which are the main avenue through which the Ogallala Aquifer and other regional groundwater sources recharge

Unfortunately, between efforts to extend cropland further for dryland agriculture and other overdevelopment, much of the grasslands across the High Plains have suffered significant hits to their diversity and overall sustainability. As noted by the TPWD,  much of the plains have been altered by agriculture and ranching, fragmenting the ecosystems and causing direct losses because of crops and overgrazing. The loss of grassland additionally means even less for cattle and other livestock to use during times of drought, as the High Plains has seen over the course of recent conditions while producers struggle with a lack of rain and strings of grassfires leaving less for the animals to eat

However, between the benefits of native grasses and plants to soil health and moisture retention and their added supply for livestock, TPWD said that prairie revitalization and conservation will benefit both ranchers and wildlife in the long term. After all, as noted by Technical Guidance Biologist Jim Dillard in the “Guidelines for Native Grassland Restoration Projects,” the prairies and grasslands across the High Plains once naturally supported the regular grazing of bison, which lends to the idea of ranchers and wildlife in the region holding the potential to exist symbiotically. 

Many agricultural producers across the High Plains have already begun to take part in grassland restoration and conservation projects, including those supplemented and otherwise sponsored by the USDA, by planting native grass species and maintaining rotational grazing habits for livestock. As the region leaves behind groundwater irrigation, producers and researchers have expressed hope that the restored grasslands will be able to support a new agricultural generation focused on livestock and other sustainable practices on the High Plains. 

Policy, possibilities, and other resources

No matter which strategy an agricultural producer may choose to focus on in the coming years, as the High Plains transitions away from its dependence upon the Ogallala Aquifer, questions are bound to come up surrounding the resources and processes through which producers will be expected to make their changes. Production of any kind has costs, as does infrastructure, as does systemic change – how may agricultural producers be expected to cover those costs, and where should producers look for information and other help? 

The FSA administers the Land Conservation Program that pays enrolled farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species to benefit the environment’s health and quality. The long-term goal, as described by the FSA, is to help re-establish “valuable land cover” to benefit water quality, prevent erosion, and reduce the loss of wildlife habitat. 

The program has continuous signups that are open for applications, even though the general signup for 2022 ended in March. 

The USDA hosts a database for disaster resources focused on preparing for and recovering from a list of emergencies including weather events, wildfires, and drought. 

On a more local level, the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service regularly offers conferences and meetings in the region focused on issues such as irrigation and drought management. Further, the service hosts information focused on water education, conservation, resources, and solutions for agricultural producers, homeowners, and communities. Meanwhile, the Texas Department of Agriculture also offers grants and services focused on agricultural producers, and resources for supplies such as finding hay for livestock.

Regarding federal help that is also under development, legislators are working to develop the next iteration of the Farm Bill that was passed into law in December 2018. Another callback to the Dust Bowl Era, the first Farm Bill was passed in 1933 as a part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Each farm bill focuses on commodity programs, conservation, trade, nutrition, credit, rural development, crop insurance, and other areas of interest set to benefit the long-term health of the agricultural community and day-to-day quality of life for producers. The most recent bill is set to expire in September 2023, which presents the opportunity for lawmakers to make changes and take account of constituents’ wants and needs for the next set of policies and programs. That opportunity is considered more important than ever by many, including Congressman Jodey Arrington (TX-19).

“I’d say that in my lifetime, there’s probably not a more important Farm Bill and a more important time to get ag policies right,” said Arrington, “So that we can continue to feed our own citizens, and to make sure that people aren’t having to make really hard trade-offs. Because they can’t afford to heat and cool their home. They can’t put gas in their cars. And they’re having a difficult time just buying groceries for their families. So that makes this Farm Bill, I think, the most critical in my lifetime.”

The legislation for the Farm Bill will experience hearings involving lawmakers and the public on both a federal and local level, including upcoming hearings and those that have already occurred for the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry. The legislation will then go through agricultural committees and be reviewed by Congress multiple times over before heading to the White House and then, later, the budget process. 

Information on how to contact the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry can be found here. Information and hearings from the House Agriculture Committee can be found here. Further, general contact information for Representatives and Senators can be found here