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High Plains Water District

Reducing uncertainty on the Southern High Plains

F

arming practices on the Southern High Plains, and more specifically a farmer’s choice of whether or not to change them, are affected by irrigation methods and crop insurance.

Dr. Darren Hudson of the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics is the graduate director and helps put together funding for research.

Dr. Hudson said, “We have students from all over doing research that impacts this area.”

Jorge Romero-Habeych is not your traditional student, he served in the Army and worked as an analyst in the natural gas industry before returning to school. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Central Florida. As a doctoral student in Agricultural and Applied Economics, Romero-Habeych’s research explores how farmers choose irrigation techniques.

Agriculture on the Southern High Plains was significantly impacted by the introduction of center pivot irrigation.

 “Prior to the center pivot in the 1990s, … irrigation was very inefficient,” Romero-Habeych said.

By adopting center pivots farmers were able to sustain yields while using less water.

In recent years farmers have had the option of adopting an even more efficient alternative, subsurface drip irrigation. Adopting efficient irrigation techniques along with the right kind of crop insurance is essential for farmers to reduce their exposure to risk.

“Why is it that we don’t see a wider implementation of this technology in the area?” Romero-Habeych asked. “My theory is that crop insurance in conjunction with already existing irrigation techniques might be making drip irrigation less attractive,” Romero-Habeych said. “On the margin, adopting drip is relatively expensive and the benefit in terms of risk reduction is likely not worth the cost.”

In terms of water use, wider adoption of drip irrigation by farmers on the Southern High Plains does not necessarily translate to less pressure on the Ogallala aquifer. Romero-Habeych made an interesting point on the issue.

“Past experience with the center pivot shows that its adoption led to more water use. Farmers actually started using more water than before because they started planting in fields that had previously not been economically attractive,” Romero-Habeych said.

Using the most efficient farming practices possible is vital for all farmer’s to continue production and not give up yields.

“Perhaps drip irrigation would be more widely adopted in the area if existing crop insurance choices were not made available. The combination of current insurance and irrigation options to reduce risk exposure might be crowding out drip,” Romero-Habeych said. “However, that might be a good outcome for the aquifer.”

How farmers on the Southern High Plains are affected by government policies, along with understanding how they use the tools at their disposal to reduce uncertainty, is what drives Romero-Habeych’s research.

Who Controls the Groundwater Under Our Feet?

This past summer, I was given the cool opportunity to intern for the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District. I did activities like write blogs, manage HPWD’s social media, and attend board meetings.

Obviously, throughout my time at HPWD I learned a lot about groundwater conservation districts and how they operate, but what I found most interesting was the number of people who had absolutely no idea what a groundwater conservation district was when I told them where I worked.

“Oh, you work for the city, right?” and “Can you do something about my water bill this month?” were questions I got often.

HPWD and other districts throughout Texas are instrumental in the conservation of our most precious resource and I think they deserve a little more recognition. Let’s start off by defining what exactly a groundwater conservation district is.

What is an Underground Water Conservation District?

Officially, a GDC is a boundary of land created under Texas Constitution, Article III, Section 52 or Article XVI, Section 59 that has the authority to regulate the spacing of water wells, the production from water wells, or both. They are also responsible for the protection, preservation and conservation of aquifers within the district’s service area.

In Texas, there are 98 groundwater conservation districts and all are required to create and implement a management plan for the use of their ground water resources. The Texas Water Development Board approves these plans.

GCDs come in many shapes and sizes. The Red Sands GCD is the smallest district, which covers about 114 square miles. The HPWD is the largest district and covers about 11,940 square miles, according to the HPWD website.

About HPWD

It’s easier to explain what exactly GCDs do when we can focus on one district and describe its functions. Lubbock is home to the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District. The HPWD was created in March 1951, making it the first district created.

The HPWD is governed by a five-member board of directors who are elected by residents in each of the district director’s precincts. The directors oversee district operations, programs and activities, as well as attending monthly board meetings and approving final water well permit applications. Each director serves a four-year term.

HPWD Map
Map of 98 the current groundwater conservation districts in Texas. Image credit: HPWD website.

The district operates over three aquifers. The Ogallala, Edwards-Trinity, and Dockum aquifers. The Ogallala Aquifer is the major aquifer which underlies all the district’s service area. It is one of the largest aquifers in the world, covering around 174,000 square miles. The Edwards-Trinity and Dockum aquifers are minor aquifers in the district.

Programs

HPWD provides the public with many programs and services such as annual water level reports, interactive maps, well permitting, newsletters and magazines, and educational contests. The public can use these programs to learn about new practices and technology in the water conservation industry. These programs especially help farmers who are irrigating crops and keeping a close eye on water levels.

Annual water level reports

Each year, HPWD puts together an annual report detailing the change in water levels throughout the 16-county district. Information is taken from 1,422 water level observation wells to determine if water levels have dropped, risen or stayed the same. Farmers and ranchers can use this information to see patterns in water levels around them and plan accordingly for the upcoming year.

Well Permitting

According to the HPWD website, landowners are required to apply for a permit prior to drilling and production of water of any well expected to produce 17.5 gallons of water per minute or more.

To acquire a permit, a citizen must provide:

  • The landowner’s name, address, and telephone number.
  • The applicant’s name, address and phone number.
  • The legal description of the property including the aquifer into which the well will be drilled.

Then, a field technician will meet the applicant at the proposed well site to identify the proposed well site, property line, and pay a fee of $250.

Lastly, the applicant must sign the permit application. Once the permit application is signed, district personnel will finalize the permit to be approved/not approved by the district’s general manager and board of directors.

Magazines and Newsletters

HPWD’s annual publication, the Conservation Connect, is done to showcase the water conservation efforts of individuals throughout the district. Articles in the magazine cover a variety of topics such as adoption of new technologies, education of practices, and new trends in the industry.

On that same note, The Cross Section is HPWD’s bi-weekly newsletter to present the plans and functions of the district.

H2You Contest  

Every year HPWD gives high school students within the district an opportunity to share their ideas on how to save water. Students form a team, create a campaign, write a proposal, and present their presentation to be submitted for judgement. Winners receive a scholarship and an all-expense paid trip to Austin.

HPWD Building
Outside of HPWD’s Lubbock office located at 2930 Ave. Q. Photo by Keni Reese.

Groundwater conservation districts throughout the state provide valuable services to the citizens in their districts. Water is arguably our most vital resource and it is important to have services, like the ones HPWD provides, to teach the public about conservation. For more information about groundwater conservation districts, go to www.hpwd.org or http://www.twdb.texas.gov/.

New Partnership Program to Benefit Farmers, Environment

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partnered with the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District (HPWD) and six other underground water districts for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, known as RCPP, to help farmers remotely monitor soil moisture.

Greg Sokora, NRCS civil engineer in Lubbock, said the RCPP consists of a soil moisture monitoring system that measures the amount of moisture in the ground. A telemetry receiver, much like a cellphone tower, is placed either at the pivot or in the field allowing farmers to receive up-to-date soil moisture information every 15 minutes to an hour on their smartphones, tablets or home computers.

“Water flow meters and chemigation valves are the high priority practices in the RCPP program,” Sokora said.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Image courtesy USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Brandt Underwood, NRCS conservation agronomist in Lubbock, said the RCPP program is going to help farmers match their irrigation scheduling closer to their crop water needs by using the most advanced soil moisture monitoring technology available.

“I would call [the RCPP program] a three-way partnership between us, the landowner, and the contractor,” Underwood said. “It’s beneficial for us all to work together. What NRCS is doing is providing some technical and financial assistance. When we’re done, we have a quality installation and a quality practice on a piece of land that will help us increase that conservation level on that farm.”

Jason Coleman, general manager for HPWD, said he sees a possibility for the continuation of the program if it is as successful as producers believe it to be. He said there is roughly $2 million for the next five years to allow producers an opportunity to utilize those funds for some of the areas of water conservation and water management.

“It would be nice if this program is as successful as we believe it will be, and that this partnership program remains available through USDA,” Coleman said.

IrrigationTech_BHeff using app 2
Photo courtesy USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service

Coleman said through the program, the HPWD hopes to offer services and assistance to producers and well owners, specifically for producers with flow tests. Coleman said those services are aimed at educating and helping people understand changing water levels and changing water conditions on their properties. This allows the farmers to leverage that information with the equipment to better manage water resources on their properties.

Underwood said this program is designed to assist farmers with more opportunity to build on their existing management for irrigation scheduling.

“Depending on how a farmer has set up his operation determine how many flow meters he will need,” Underwood said. “Sprinkler systems are designed to run at a certain number of gallons per minute, and it’s hard to manage what you can’t measure. A flow meter is just another tool to help them manage what they’ve got.”

This program is also helping the environment in relation to managing water resources. Sokora said this program is pertinent to West Texas and water resources in the area.

“Saving water: That’s the big intent,” Sokora said, “That’s our intent, that’s the groundwater district’s intent.”

“If a farmer can stop two irrigations — one at the beginning of the season and one at the end of the season — he would have left that much more water in the aquifer,” said Sokora.

Example Root Summary Plot (Fig. 7)
Photo courtesy USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service

Coleman said farmers who want to sign up for the RCPP program may go to their local USDA-NRCS offices and inquire about the program. Sokora said there’s been heavy interest despite the program just beginning.

“I think it’s got off to a good start,” Sokora said. “There’s been a lot of outreach. A lot of the water districts had a waiting list for people to apply…we’re looking forward to a good sign up. There’s a lot of interest in that. Farmers have to save everything they can with the water and the energy and the money that they save by not pumping water.”

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