As Aquifer Drops, Attention Turns To Nine Counties

News Release

DATE: May 24, 2006
CONTACT: Norman Martin,
(806) 742-4108


LUBBOCK – The Ogallala Aquifer, the vast underground water source that has fed the fields of eight states for more than a century, is at a critical juncture. It’s steadily being depleted by years of groundwater pumping.

The sprawling aquifer is the world’s largest underground water system, irrigating vast portions of the nation’s croplands and providing drinking water to Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.

Now, using computer models looking 60 years into the future, Texas Tech University researchers have evaluated the likely economic impact of various possible water conservation policies that could be designed to extend the aquifer’s life. They found that the greatest savings come from targeting a few critical counties that are flush with water.

“Blanket water conservation policies for the region as a whole are likely to be inefficient,” said Jeff Johnson, an assistant professor in Texas Tech’s agricultural and applied economics department. “We need to select those counties that will make a difference.”

The biggest return in terms of legislative time and tax money comes from concentrating on nine heavily irrigated counties, he said – Cochran, Floyd, Gaines, Hale, Hockley, Lamb, Lubbock, Terry and Yoakum counties.

“By focusing water conservation on these counties, policymakers can conserve water for future irrigation where it’s likely to be most vital to the regional economy,” Johnson said.

The study analyzed 22 counties surrounding Lubbock and two counties in New Mexico. Over the years, these areas have played a productive role in the region’s agricultural community, primarily growing cotton, corn, grain sorghum, wheat and peanuts.

Computer models reveal that the value of irrigation over 60 years is substantial – $2,830 an acre. However, there’s a tremendous range among the counties, ranging from $200 to $5,953 an acre.

Using a 60-year timeline, researchers evaluated three potential policies: a zero percent use policy in which agricultural irrigation of crop would essentially halt. The other two proposals measured 50 percent and 75 percent drawdown alternatives.

Many counties in the study area simply didn’t deplete water levels enough to warrant a change in the current conservation policy, Johnson said. In fact, the cost of conserving an additional acre foot of water in a low water use county was extremely high.

“Every county is different,” he said. “If you’re going to make changes in the aquifer for the least cost, start with high water use counties. We need to make a difference there before we work our way out.”

Johnson admitted this will be no easy task. There’s likely to be resistance from farmers in affected heavily irrigated counties. Plus, there’s no unifying governmental body that enforces water policy across the entire region.

Texas water policy is typically determined by single county water districts, but there are larger bodies like the 15-county High Plains Underground Water Conservation District that have a more regional jurisdiction.

Here’s what Tech agricultural economists believe will happen over the next six decades if no water conservation policies are implemented:

First, the saturated thickness of the aquifer is projected to decline on average by 41 percent. Put simply, saturated thickness is the thickness of an aquifer. Some counties will see no drop off, while others will watch it nosedive by 83 percent.

Second, the annual average net return will fall by $60 an acre. Net return is the remainder left after operational expenses and interest payments are deducted from total income.

“That’s a significant decline due to the decrease in irrigated acreage,” Johnson said. “It’s the difference between having enough for some to continue farming.”


Jeffrey Johnson, assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics, College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, (806) 742-2852;