Drought-Hit Farmers Explore New Irrigation Methods

Corn rows

by | Jul 3, 2013

Corn rowsFarmers in the Texas Panhandle, squeezed for water by a three-year drought and a declining Ogallalla Aquifer, are experimenting with planting corn without watering the ground first. They are planting later in the season so they can tap the summer rain and switching to pivot sprinklers for more efficient, affordable watering, reports the New York Times.

The groundwater authority in the Panhandle limits how much water each farmer can draw from the aquifer. It initiated the demonstration pilot with 11 farmers who have been trying to make do with less water while still remaining profitable. The demo project reflects the harsh reality of the drought, the Times says. Farmers draw more than half the water used in the region and now they’re subject to the same water restrictions as cities and industrial plants.

The North Plains district in the Panhandle began the project in 2010 with financing from state and federal agencies to the tune of $300,000 a year. It focuses on growing corn with half the amount of water typically used, to see if farmers remain profitable. The goal is to figure out viable irrigation methods that can be deployed immediately since time is of the essence with parched land.

The project has also introduced new technology like soil sensors that enable farmers to receive accurate data about sprinkler performance and moisture that they can read remotely from their smartphones and other devices. The Times reports that farmers are motivated to try these methods because they’re restricted by how much they can draw from the Ogallalla Aquifer, which runs from North Dakota to Texas but has declined heavily in Texas, according to a June groundwater study by the US Geological Survey.

Other water districts are also beginning to follow the North Plains district’s lead in restricting the amount of water that farmers can draw from their own land — this water is free, while the cost of pumping water from the aquifer is low because natural gas is cheap.

Local farmers are starting to take interest in alternative irrigation methods, but there are roadblocks. Waiting later to plant the corn means farmers will not meet the June 1 cut-off date set by insurance companies so they run the risk of not having insurance on late crops. The severe drought also tests the restrictions on water usage, given how parched the land has become. Another challenge comes from higher crop prices, which has encouraged farmers to plant more fields of corn, leading to higher water usage.

Like in Texas, some farmers and contractors in California also had their water supply cut this year because of an unusually dry winter. Following a wet start to the water year in November and December 2012, the January to March period was California’s driest on record, according to the US Department of the Interior.

In April, Reuters reported that the plains and the western US are still in the worst drought in more than 50 years, but this year’s corn, soybean and wheat harvest will be better than the summer of 2012.

Image credit: WattAgNet.com via Flickr

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