Ogallala Aquifer Summit discusses ideas on preservation of the region's vitality

Candace Krebs
The Ag Journal
During the recent Ogallala Aquifer Summit, OSU soil and water specialist Jason Warren explained how a program called TAPS — Testing Ag Performance Solutions — challenges growers to figure out how to optimize inputs like irrigation when growing corn and cotton in the Oklahoma panhandle. Water from the aquifer, which underlies 175,000 square miles across eight states, is being withdrawn faster than it can recharge at current rates, driving interest in water-saving innovation.

Education and collaboration were repeatedly emphasized during the second-ever Ogallala Aquifer Summit, a virtual gathering space where hundreds of concerned farmers, researchers and resource managers shared ideas about how to preserve the vitality of a rural region that overlies one of the most heavily pumped underground reservoirs in the world.

Roughly 95 percent of all freshwater currently withdrawn from the eight-state aquifer goes to irrigate commodity crops.

Since the first aquifer summit in 2018, previous participants have expanded on several innovative programs or spread them to new areas.

The Kansas Water Office now has 15 water technology farms that demonstrate the latest irrigation technology in a real world setting.

Colorado put its own spin on a Master Irrigator training program, which originated in the Texas panhandle, adding participant stipends and service discounts to help incentivize participation by irrigators across the eight Republican River Basin counties in the northeastern corner of the state, according to program coordinator Brandi Baquera.

In the Oklahoma panhandle, OSU soil and water specialist Jason Warren introduced an experiential learning program that was originally developed by the University of Nebraska. TAPS, which stands for Testing Ag Performance Solutions, uses a competitive format to engage farmers in finding new ways to optimize resources and improve input-use efficiency. The field trials help provide OSU with valuable research data, while farmers get to test out their ideas in a research simulation before making big upfront investments.

These programs, along with countless one-on-one conversations, are drawing more converts to precision water management, as the finite nature of the region’s centuries-old groundwater gradually sinks in.

“In Western Kansas, you can see which communities are still vibrant, and they all have a fairly stable water supply yet,” noted Matt Long, a farmer and ag input dealer from Leoti, Kansas. “We have some communities that have simply dried up, because there’s no real industry here outside of agriculture.”

“It’s not just about having water for the future,” he stressed. “It’s about having communities in the future.”

Optimizing irrigation use

Around 65 to 70 percent of the aquifer has already been depleted in his area, Long said.

Five years ago he and ten other individuals set up one of the state’s first official Water Conservation Areas, a newly authorized status that allowed them to voluntarily limit irrigation use as a group and still protect their water rights. Since then, they’ve achieved a 29 percent reduction.

More recently, the local groundwater management district established a Local Enhanced Management Area, or LEMA, another designation conferring added flexibility that is expected to lead to further reductions.

“It’s a conversion process, if you want to call it that,” Long said. “It really takes that personal interaction which each one of the participants.”

Individual producers don’t always realize they can make a difference, especially if they have just one or two center pivot sprinklers, said Cory Gilbert, the founder and owner of On Target Ag Solutions in Burlington, Colorado.

He helps farmers adopt tools like in-field soil moisture sensors and infiltration monitoring as part of a comprehensive precision agriculture management plan that ultimately begins and ends with optimizing water use.

“When you tie it all together, it’s a systems approach, and it always seems to come back to water,” he said.

Like Long, he has seen more farmers taking extra time and effort to save water.

“In August 2019, we had a rain event and cooler weather,” he observed. “Normally farmers wouldn’t dream of turning off their sprinklers in that situation. But 50 percent of the acres we managed were turned off, and as a result we saved more than 400 acre feet of water over four days.”

“There’s no shortage of technology out there, but getting buy-in and making that decision to do it is the first step,” he added.

Farmers are also learning to recognize the power of collecting and analyzing data, according to Billy Tiller, a Lubbock farmer and founder of Grower Information Services Cooperative, the country’s first ag-data cooperative.

For one thing, there’s immense value in simply having good data.

“As a producer, my big fear is bad data regulating me,” he said.

Then it’s often necessary to collaborate to use that data effectively, he said.

“Don’t be afraid to collaborate,” he said. “We’re always thinking about how will that data be used against me? But we have to get proactive about this.”

Tiller is currently working with the Twin Platte Natural Resources District in Nebraska on using electric smart meters to update and improve older stream-flow data previously collected by the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

He’s also building out a benchmarking tool for farmers in the district that keeps their data private, but allows them to compare themselves with other water users.

“You can’t manage what you’re not collecting well,” he said. “If you don’t have something to compare it to, you have nothing.”

Now is the time to make long-term investments in improving water management, he believes.

“I think we are sitting on the precipice of using sustainability to make more money,” he said. “I think we need to think like that and plan on that.”

Adam Boryca, president of Homestead Bank, a rural Nebraska lender, agreed.

Locking in a reduced interest rate or a marketing contract offers dollars-and-cents benefits that are easy to see, whereas the value of water saved is harder to “put your finger on,” he acknowledged.

Still, he is certain resource management will get more scrutiny in the future.

Current communication from the Federal Reserve Bank indicates the day is coming when lenders and their loan portfolio will be reviewed and perhaps even “stress tested” for factors associated with climate change resiliency.

“That’s becoming a risk we will have to watch over and monitor,” he said.