The NRCS announced it will spend another $8.1 million dollars in 2017 to fund conservation efforts in support of the dwindling Ogallala aquifer that is the focus of irrigated farm ground in the western Great Plains.
This follows $8 million spent in 2016 and $7.7 million allocated in 2015, and $66 million spent from 2011-2014 for financial assistance to thousands of farmers.
The question I ask: Is this piecemeal strategy really working?
A recent study by the Colorado School of Mines, using a new model that simulates regional groundwater dynamics and withdrawals from 1960 to 2100, found the southern part of the Ogallala aquifer could be depleted between 2050 and 2070.
That’s not all: The school found California’s agricultural powerhouses — the Central Valley, Tulare Basin, and southern San Joaquin Valley, which produce a plentiful portion of the nation’s food — could run out of accessible groundwater as early as the 2030s, according to a recent article in National Geographic.
“The areas that will run into trouble the soonest are areas where we have a lot of demand and not enough surface water available,” says Inge de Graaf, a hydrologist at the Colorado school who worked on the modeling project.
According to the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative’s own scorecard, 2018 milestones set for conserving water, improving irrigation efficiency, converting irrigated farmland to dryland farming and increasing nutrient management weren’t even close to being reached as of October 2015 — the most recent report available.
The goal of “converted dryland farming or retired cropland” was set at 28.5 million acres by 2018, but only 4.8 million acres have been converted or retired to date — 17% of the goal. Other than nutrient management, no more than 20% progress has been achieved on any of the 2018 milestones.
This 174,000-square-mile 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. It touches parts of eight states.
The NRCS says its analysis of EQIP conservation projects in the region, including those implemented through OAI, estimated 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.
The NRCS acknowledges water levels in many places in the region are dropping at an unsustainable rate, “making targeted conservation even more important.” From 2011 to 2013, the aquifer’s overall water level dropped by 36 million acre-feet.
While the NRCS is doing the right thing by working with local farmers to improve conservation efforts with the implementation of dryland farming, reduced tillage, cover crops and more modern irrigation methods, I don’t think there’s been enough progress. And it’s becoming more and more clear to me that farmers aren’t going to regulate themselves on this matter.
Given the vast implications for our country’s food production, I don’t feel the USDA is placing enough importance on this issue of water availability and that needs to change.
When a new Secretary of Agriculture is named to President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet, I think this issue with water availability in agriculture needs to be given a new sense of urgency, so our country’s farm economy can be preserved and more painful steps aren’t needed down the road.