Farmers restore native grasslands as groundwater disappears
MULESHOE, Texas – Tim Black’s cell phone rings, signaling time to reverse sprinklers spitting water on a pie-shaped section of grass that will provide pasture for his cattle.
It is important not to waste a drop. The future of his family depends on it.
For decades, the Texas Panhandle was green of cotton, corn and wheat. Wells drew a thousand gallons per minute from the seemingly bottomless Ogallala aquifer, allowing farmers to thrive despite frequent droughts and summer heat.
But now farmers face a difficult calculation. The groundwater that has supported livelihoods for generations is disappearing, which has created another problem in the southern plains: when there is not enough rain or groundwater to germinate crops, the ground can fly away, as it did during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
“We wasted hell out of water,” says Black, recalling how farmers irrigated as a child – like it would go on forever.
His grandfather could reach the water with a hole shovel. Now Black is fortunate enough to draw 50 gallons per minute from high pressure wells, nearly 400 feet deep. He buys bottled water for his family because the well water is salty.
The problem is not unique to the Ogallala. The aquifers of the agricultural country from the central valley of California to India and China are being depleted. But the 174,000 square mile Ogallala – one of the largest in the world – is vital to farmers and ranchers in parts of eight Plains States.
The region produces nearly a third of America’s staple crops and livestock, affecting other agricultural industries, small businesses, land values and community tax bases, says Amy Kremen, project manager the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project, funded by the US Department of Agriculture. supports water management.
But since water does not recharge easily in most areas, if it runs out, it could be gone for hundreds or even thousands of years.
And in Texas, as well as parts of New Mexico and Oklahoma, water is disappearing faster than elsewhere in the aquifer, also called the high plains. Less frequent rains linked to climate change mean that groundwater is often the only option for farmers, forcing difficult choices.
Some grow crops that require less water or invest in more efficient irrigation systems. Others, like Black, are also replacing cash crops with livestock and pasture.
And others return the earth to its literal roots – by planting native grasses that turn green with the slightest rain and grow dense roots that hold the soil in place.
“There’s a reason Mother Nature chose these plants for these areas,” says Nick Bamert, whose father 70 years ago started a Muleshoe-based seed business specializing in native grasses. “The natives … will persist because they have known the coldest winters and the hottest dry summers.”
Black, who once grew mainly corn, plants grass in the corners of his fields, as pasture for his growing herd of cattle, and as a cover crop between rows of wheat and annual grass.
The transition to cattle, he hopes, will allow his eldest son, Tyler, to stay on the land Black’s grandparents started plowing 100 years ago. His youngest son, Trent, “could see the writing on the wall” and is a data analyst near Dallas.
“It’s just too hard here without water,” Black said.
Dry grass crackles underfoot as Jude Smith reaches a viewpoint at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge, created during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl to preserve native prairie and three spring-fed lakes.
It is mid-May and everything seems dead because there has hardly been any rain for a year. The lakes – where the Ogallala is expected to bubble and where tens of thousands of migrating sandhill cranes congregate in good years – are dry.
The rain might not raise the water table much, says Smith, a biologist who manages the refuge. But the native prairie comes alive with even a net.
While the non-native grass dies during droughts, the native grass goes dormant and the roots – up to 15 feet deep – hold the soil.
Rain has fallen this summer – about 16 inches so far – often in torrents. The lakes at the refuge filled with the runoff and the springs started to flow again, Smith says. Meanwhile, the native grasslands “look like Ireland”.
The welcome rain has not allayed long-term concerns about groundwater and droughts, says Black, the landowner of Muleshoe. It was too late to help germinate the spring crops, and the farmers continued to irrigate.
The Texas Panhandle will almost certainly continue to be locked into long spells of drought that lingered in the southwest for 20 years, USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey said.
Farmers have called him to ask if the wildlife sanctuary can buy their land, which he is not allowed to do.
“Everyone knows that … the water is going,” he says, passing abandoned farms, trees that mark lost farms, and rusted irrigation equipment.
There is cause for concern, experts say.
More than half of the land currently irrigated in parts of western Texas, eastern New Mexico and the Oklahoma Panhandle could be lost by the turn of the century – with 80% of those losses d ‘by 2060, according to a study published last year.
But areas of the aquifer are also vulnerable. The central part could lose up to 40% of irrigated area by 2100. New dust bin
The USDA has identified a “Dust Bowl Zone” that covers parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas vulnerable to severe wind erosion and where prairie conservation is a priority.
Already, reestablishing native vegetation has proven difficult in the sandy soil above the Ogallala where irrigation has ceased on old Kansas farmland. The same is true on lands outside of the Ogallala previously irrigated by rivers, including in the Arkansas River Valley in Colorado, where farmland dried up before native grasses could take hold.
With less rainfall, farmers will likely have to use the remaining groundwater to reestablish native grasses to avoid Dust Bowl conditions, says study co-author Meagan Schipanski, associate professor of soil and soil sciences. cultures at Colorado State University.
“In an ideal world, there would be some forethought and incentives available” to help farmers make the transition “before there is not enough water there,” Schipanski said.
Federal crop insurance and conservation programs often work against the grain: farmers sometimes plant crops even if they are at risk of failure because they are covered by insurance. And cultivating the land is often more profitable than receiving government payments to preserve or restore grasslands.
“What is at stake,” says Kremen, “is the vitality of the communities that depend on this water and the cities that are drying up and flying away.”