Will Texas Drought Drain Ogallala Aquifer?


by Todd Neeley, DTN Staff Reporter

TOPEKA, Kan. (DTN) — Texas agriculture has taken a hit from recent drought and wildfires, at a time when water users in the state continue to draw down a dwindling Ogallala aquifer.

One Texas Water Development Board official said during the annual Water and the Future of Kansas conference last week that the state will have to take serious steps to address how water is being used.

The Ogallala aquifer is declining, said board member Weir Labatt, because the state doesn’t have a good handle on how to manage it.

“This decline is a creeping disaster,” he said. “Farmers will have to convert to dry-land farming.”

There have been about $5.2 billion in agriculture losses just in Texas this year, including half of the cotton crop. Nearly all dryland farming is lost, Labatt said, and recent fires burned some 3.5 million acres.

About 40{fe867fa2be02a5a45e8bbb747b653fe2e9d0331fd056b85cd0c1a3542435a96e} of all water used in Texas comes from the Ogallala. About 99{fe867fa2be02a5a45e8bbb747b653fe2e9d0331fd056b85cd0c1a3542435a96e} of the overall decline of the aquifer is attributed to irrigated agriculture, he said.


Though there are two layers of water district oversight covering the state of Texas, Labatt said, there isn’t a sense of urgency about the future of the aquifer.

Labatt was first appointed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2002. He’s a rancher and former San Antonio city councilman. He’s now serving as chairman of the Western States Water Council.

Texas has numerous groundwater conservation districts that are based primarily on county lines, as well as groundwater management areas that overlap.

“The big issue is that if each district has control of groundwater in their area, there is no statewide oversight in Texas,” he said. “That is the chaos theory. You cannot control a finite resource if you do not have statewide control. There is a huge problem and the state legislature will have to do something.”

At this point, Texas is experiencing the worst one-year drought on record, Labatt said, while breaking temperature records statewide.

In 1997, the state undertook a regional water planning process after the legislature established 16 different groundwater management areas. This resulted in the state’s first water plan that now is updated every five years.

However, Labatt said the drawdown continues.

By 2060, he said, the Texas population is expected to double and there will be an estimated need for 22{fe867fa2be02a5a45e8bbb747b653fe2e9d0331fd056b85cd0c1a3542435a96e} more water. Labatt said agriculture use is expected to decrease by about 17{fe867fa2be02a5a45e8bbb747b653fe2e9d0331fd056b85cd0c1a3542435a96e}.

“Are we ready for the next drought? Nope, not ready,” Labatt said. “Even though we’ve got this phenomenal plan, we’re not ready, not ready now and we get less ready in the future. The good news is we have a plan. We’ve identified strategies. It meets all the municipal demand. But it does not meet all agriculture demand.”

The total estimated cost to meet all water needs in Texas will be about $231 billion by 2060, he said. If the state takes no action to conserve water, Labatt said, there will be some 1.1 million jobs lost, $9.8 billion in lost tax revenue and 71{fe867fa2be02a5a45e8bbb747b653fe2e9d0331fd056b85cd0c1a3542435a96e} of the state population would not have water.

In addition, Labatt said, the state faces legal barriers in moving surplus water to areas where it is needed.

“When we need water, a junior water right does no good,” he said.


The state needs to work to protect future reservoir sites, Labatt said, and to go out and buy reservoir sites. A large percentage of water needed for 2060 will come from these sites.

He said the state still abides by the 1904 rule of capture established by English common law. This rule has been upheld by the state supreme court.

Someone who owns land may dig and use the resources available. If water is drained from a neighbor’s well, Labatt said, it is an injury without remedy. In this situation, there are no grounds for action, he said. The biggest well and biggest pump wins.

The drawdown of the Ogallala, he said, makes it vital for stepped-up research into more drought-tolerant crops.

“Agriculture requires cheap water unless it is heavily subsidized and that will not happen,” Labatt said. “We ought to be getting concerned.”

When there is no state oversight on water management, he said, it makes it difficult to conserve the Ogallala.

In the northwest panhandle of Texas, for example, water districts have set goals for how much of the Ogallala they would like to have available in the years to come. Those numbers range from 40{fe867fa2be02a5a45e8bbb747b653fe2e9d0331fd056b85cd0c1a3542435a96e} to 80{fe867fa2be02a5a45e8bbb747b653fe2e9d0331fd056b85cd0c1a3542435a96e} in the next 50 years, Labatt said.

The variation in those goals has caused friction.

One local rancher, he said, filed a lawsuit because part of his property sits in a water district with a goal to have 50{fe867fa2be02a5a45e8bbb747b653fe2e9d0331fd056b85cd0c1a3542435a96e} of the aquifer left, and the other half sits on ground where the 80{fe867fa2be02a5a45e8bbb747b653fe2e9d0331fd056b85cd0c1a3542435a96e} goal was adopted. Labatt said the rancher wants to be able to pump more water on the 80{fe867fa2be02a5a45e8bbb747b653fe2e9d0331fd056b85cd0c1a3542435a96e} side.

“It is a complete disaster long term,” he said. “Mathematically, it doesn’t work. Texas has a great water plan, but I would argue it is not relative to the Ogallala. It is a real disaster. I hope and pray that our elected officials can see the big picture and understand the long-term implications.”

© Copyright 2011 DTN/The Progressive Farmer, A Telvent Brand. All rights reserved.

Posted with DTN Permission by Haylie Shipp


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