It’s becoming ever more clear that the NRCS believes no-tilling, cover crops and more precise grazing methods will be crucial to shoring up the declining Ogallala aquifer.
And it’s also clear farmers in the southern Plains will continue to feel pressure to reduce or eliminate their dependence on irrigation, or adopt more efficient technology.
The NRCS announced this month that it will invest $8 million in the ongoing Ogallala Aquifer Initiative (OEI) in 2016 to help farmers and ranchers conserve water in the Ogallala’s footprint. This is up from $6.5 million that was spent for 2015.
The NRCS is also adding two new management areas for the OEI:
- Middle Republican Natural Resource District: The project in southwestern Nebraska addresses groundwater quantity and quality concerns, and will enable participants to voluntarily implement practices to conserve irrigation water and improve groundwater quality.
- Oklahoma Ogallala Aquifer Initiative: Among other things, this project will help landowners implement conservation practices — including crop residue and tillage management — that decrease water use. One goal is helping farmers convert from irrigated to dryland farming.
The NRCS already has focus areas in Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas and Colorado, which you can read more about by clicking here.
The NRCS says it’s continuing to address problems with the aquifer by working with farmers to build soil health through seeding cover crops and implementing no-till practices, which will improve water-holding capacity and buffer roots from higher temperatures.
The agency also wants to improve irrigation efficiency and implementing prescribed grazing to relieve pressure on stressed vegetation.
Covering nearly 174,000 square miles, the aquifer supports the production of nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the U.S., and supplies 30% of all water used for irrigation in the U.S.
But the NRCS says water levels in the region are dropping at an unsustainable rate. From 2011 to 2013, the aquifer's overall water level dropped by 36 million acre feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The NRCS says its analysis of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) conservation projects in the region — including those implemented through OAI —estimate reduced water withdrawals of at least 1.5 million acre feet, or 489 billion gallons of water, from 2009 through 2013, and an energy savings equivalent of almost 33 million gallons of diesel fuel due to reduced irrigation.
As with any other federal program such as OEI, it’s important that these funds properly funnel down to local conservation districts, water boards and other such organizations that are influencers in the region and understand local challenges.
It’s also crucial that local officials use these funds to come up with effective demonstration plots that have the potential to show farmers these conservation measures can not only save water but also help them be more profitable.