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Texas Tech Ogallala Aquifer Research Team Wins National USDA Award

Preservation of aquifer is extremely important to future water availability.

Written by Norman Martin

Ogallala

Map courtesy: High Plains Water District. (click to enlarge)

The depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer has made headlines the past several years and has been a concern to many who live on the Southern Great Plains region, including the Texas High Plains, along with portions of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. The aquifer encompasses more than 170,000 square miles, making it a sizeable and vital water resource.

The importance of preserving the aquifer is why, a decade ago, Texas Tech University teamed up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, as well as other universities, including Kansas State, Texas A&M and West Texas A&M, to study the aquifer in more detail, said Sukant Misra, associate dean for research in Texas Tech’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.

For its work and dedication to finding water-saving solutions, the team of researchers involved in the Ogallala Aquifer Program were awarded the “2013 USDA Secretary’s Honor Award” in the category of Enhancing Economic Vitality and Quality of Life in Rural America. The award, considered by many as the most prestigious departmental award given by the USDA secretary, was presented last month in Washington, D.C.

“It’s an honor to receive the award because it recognizes great, collaborative work conducted over a number of years,” Misra said.

The research was aimed at:

  • Investigating and improving water management within existing cropping systems.
  • Developing and evaluating integrated crop and livestock systems that reduce dependence on underground water resources while optimizing productivity, product quality and profitability.
  • Investigating designs, performance and management strategies for water conservation.
  • Assessing groundwater resources in the Ogallala Aquifer and their relationships with climate.
  • Enhancing knowledge base of producers, water professionals and policy makers about soil water, crop water use, precipitation management and irrigation principles.
  • Developing an information program for youth about the Ogallala Aquifer.
  • Developing and evaluating water-saving technologies for concentrated animal feeding operations and industries that process agricultural commodities.
  • Evaluating the implications of alternate water policy options.

The combined work has helped to better understand water management and allow for the development of tools farmers and ranchers can use.

Among the advancements within Texas Tech’s portion of the program were:

  • A new method based on satellite observations will provide real-time irrigation recommendations on a field-by-field basis to farmers. This meth­od could reduce the total amount of water applied to a typical irrigated field by around two inches per growing season, resulting in a saving of more than 350,000 acre-feet of Ogallala Aquifer per year across the Southern High Plains.
  • Helped create Turffalo-Buffa­lograss, Shadow Turf-Zoysiagrass, and the Red Raider Native Wildflower Collection used in water conserving landscapes across the state
  • Developed an integrated crop, livestock, forage production system that requires 23 percent less irrigation water over cotton monoculture systems, potentially saving Texas producers an estimated $18 million in cash expenses
  • Recent research challenges the argu­ment for managing groundwater as a common property resource and suggests that a CRP-type of policy would be superior to tax and quota-based ones to achieve water conservation goals.
  • A survey of producer and water district managers in Kansas and Texas revealed that the most relevant water conservation policy options for the southern portion of the Ogallala Aquifer would be: 1) investments in bio-engineered drought resistant crop varieties, 2) investments in efficient irrigation technologies, 3) short-term water rights buyouts, 4) long-term water rights buyouts, and 5) water use restrictions.
  • Conducted outreach programs for producers and agribusiness leaders highlighting current and future production and water management best practices. Emerging technology presentations were given on the new SmartCrop irrigation man­agement technology and Exactrix anhydrous delivery systems.

The Ogallala Aquifer region produces about 4 percent of the nation’s corn, 25 percent of its hard red winter wheat, 23 percent of its grain sorghum, and 42 percent of its fed beef. Water availability, cost, policy, technology development and adoption rates will shape the rural landscape in the coming decades.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do yet,” Misra said. “One thing that we know for sure is that we will have less water in the future. Either we use less now or we will have less to use as we go down the line.”

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CASNR
The College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources is made up of six departments

The College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources is made up of six departments:

  • Agriculture and Applied Economics
  • Agricultural Education and Communications
  • Animal and Food Science
  • Landscape Architecture
  • Plant and Soil Science
  • Natural Resources Management

The college also consists of eleven research centers and institutes, including the Cotton Economics Research Institute, the International Cotton Research Center and the Fiber and Biopolymer Research Institute.

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