West Texas sits atop one of the world’s largest aquifers. Abundant water from the Ogallala has made the High Plains of Texas into the largest continuous area of intensive agriculture in the world. Towns and cities, farming and ranching, and, increasingly, energy production all depend on water from this aquifer.
Decades of pumping, though, have decimated this formerly abundant supply. In some parts of West Texas, water levels have declined by 150 feet or more and wells are already being abandoned. Recharge has slowed as playa lakes are plowed over or silted up.
As aquifer levels decline, reliance on rainfall grows. Here’s the problem, though: cycles of drought and flood, feast and famine, are a part of life on the High Plains. And today, these cycles are becoming even more extreme. Warming temperatures are driving higher evaporation rates. More evaporation means that more water is needed to provide the same amount of irrigation. It also means that the risk of severe droughts is increasing, as higher temperatures like we experienced in the summer of 2011 dry out the soils. Rainfall is becoming more variable, punctuating droughts with heavy rain and flood events. Just when it’s needed the most, rainfall is becoming increasingly unpredictable.
Limits on water supply threaten the economic resilience of the region. During the most recent drought, Texas agricultural producers lost an estimated $7.6 billion in revenues from 2011 to 2013. At the same time, demand is also on the rise. During the 1950s drought of record, there were approximately 10 million people in Texas. When the drought of 2011 hit, the population had more than doubled to roughly 25 million. By 2060, Texas’ population is expected to climb to about 46 million.
Given the challenges that lie ahead, how can we ensure the water we need to sustain the economy and the future?
Seminole, Texas, is a farming and oil- and gas-producing community of about 7,000 people. This small, traditional town is breaking new ground by using renewable wind energy to access and treat new water sources. Desalination is not a new concept, but it is traditionally energy intensive. This new project, a partnership between city officials, the Texas Water Development Board, and Texas Tech experts including civil engineer and water expert Ken Rainwater, is using wind turbines to pump and treat water from the brackish Dockum Aquifer, which lies below the Ogallala Aquifer. Then there’s the potential for adding new technology, like reverse-osmosis desalination that produces more than 27 times the amount of water that could be produced in 1980, and at roughly the same cost. By integrating these cutting-edge technologies into their municipal water supply, Seminole hopes to sustain their prosperous farming community for decades to come.
This same brackish water source is being tapped for use in oil and gas production. A new project – funded by the Apache Corporation and supported by researchers from Texas Tech’s Water Resources Center and the Department of Chemical Engineering – has figured out how to use Dockum aquifer water for hydraulic fracturing. With lower well yields, though, this resource will need more efficient management strategies compared to those currently used for freshwater from the Ogallala.
Crops need water to grow, but how much do they really need? Texas Tech University researchers led by plant and soil scientist Chuck West, in conjunction with the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation, are developing new web-based tools to help farmers use water more efficiently and increase their economic productivity at the same time. Irrigation accounts for nearly 90 percent of the region’s water use. With smart tools that maximize the amount of water that actually reaches the plant, this number can drop.
The Resource Allocation Analyzer, for example, helps farmers determine how to allocate crops to maximize per acre profits on farms or fields. The Irrigation Scheduling Tool helps increase water efficiency week-to-week by eliminating unnecessary irrigation. Researchers are also testing new technology like sub-surface drip irrigation systems. These underground systems deliver water directly to plant roots, eliminating a large part of the water lost to evaporation and helping farmers adapt to the warmer temperatures we expect in the future.
There are other ways to ensure our agriculture has the water it needs: cities across the state are beginning to recycle wastewater for irrigation. Farmers are updating irrigation equipment and adopting new practices to reduce water losses, such as growing hybrid crops that can survive drought conditions and investigating dryland farming. All across the region, innovative and out-of-the-box solutions are in the works to ensure the viability of the water supply for today and tomorrow.
These examples are innovative and exciting – but will they be enough?
Roads in Texas are long and straight. On some, we can keep ourselves on the road for miles just by looking in our rearview mirror. Where we’ve been in the past is a reliable guide to the future.
In the same way, we’ve relied on past climate conditions to plan for the future. And that’s worked well in the past: looking in the rearview mirror has kept us on the road for a long time. The 1950s drought of record, for example, is a common benchmark for water management planning. Long-term climate averages have provided a reliable picture of what we can expect for the future.
Today, though, our climate is changing. And we can’t escape the fact that semi-arid regions like West Texas are among the most vulnerable to the changes we’re seeing in our average temperature, rainfall, and evaporation. Research at the Texas Tech Climate Science Center, for example, shows that droughts will become more frequent and more severe in coming decades. Conditions like the 1950s will become more common and there may be droughts that are worse than this.
It’s no longer enough to rely on the past as a guide to the future. We must take our eyes off the rear-view mirror and look ahead, down the road, to make sure we can navigate the big curve that is fast approaching. Advances in climate science enable us to envision and plan for a different future. We must incorporate the changes of today into future planning.
Empowered with this information and our entrepreneurial spirit, we can ensure our water future.
Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University, where she is director of the Climate Science Center. She is also the founder and CEO of ATMOS Research.
Emily Powell is the communication and outreach coordinator at the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and former research fellow at LSU.
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