Agriculture in the Texas High Plains, a $20-billion-per-year industry, is facing a water crisis. Between extreme drought and overpumping, the Ogallala aquifer, the region's only source of irrigation water, is shrinking and the region's dominant, water-intensive corn and cotton monocultures face an uncertain future.
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Thanks to a unique partnership of High Plains producers and Texas Tech University researchers, however, farmers and ranchers are developing economically viable alternatives. The research partnership, funded in part by a series of Southern SARE grants, is called the Texas Coalition for Sustainable Integrated Systems Research (TeCSIS). It is using a collaborative "systems," or holistic, approach to explore innovative agricultural models that take the entire agricultural system into account, including water use.
The result is a "back-to-the-future" approach that integrates production crops with less water-intensive forages and livestock, much like the approach producers took before the advent of monoculture agriculture but guided by much more scientific accuracy. In a 10-year test, one integrated system of cotton, grains and grasses was as profitable as a conventional cotton system, but used 25 percent less water.
To learn more about TeCSIS’ work, view this short documentary recently produced by SARE and its video production partner Cooking Up a Story, in which lead researchers and producers discuss the plight of the Ogallala, regional agriculture, and how they are working together to find solutions that hold real promise.
Initial funding for the long-term project and team was provided 15 years ago by Southern SARE. This initial grant has since been leveraged into a $6.2 million grant from the state of Texas, which led to the creation of a producer group called the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation, or TAWC.
"The object is to pump less water and make more money," says TAWC Director Rick Kellison, a rancher in Lubbock. "By measuring everything that's measurable on the farm - total water use, tillage systems, fertility programs - and having academics look at each site under a magnifying glass, we can see how producers can maximize their productivity."
Along with conserving water, diversifying from a cotton monoculture leads to improved soil quality and soil carbon, less erosion and significantly lower use of nitrogen-based fertilizers, the group found.
Conserving water in the Ogallala, one of the largest fresh-water aquifers in the world, is vital not only for Texas, but for much of the United States. The Ogallala traverses through portions of eight states-Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming-providing 30 percent of the United States' irrigation, and contributing to an astounding 20 percent of the country's entire agricultural output.