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282  The Future of Plains Irrigation A New Gospel of Efficiency The Eleventh Commandment— Thou shalt inherit the Holy Earth as a faithful steward, conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation. Thou shalt safeguard the fields from soil erosion, thy living waters from drying up, that thy descendants may have abundance forever.| W. C. Lowdermilk, assistant chief, Soil Conservation Service, 1956 If the efficiency of an irrigation system is increased by 5 percent from 55 to 60 on a 160-acre field of corn . . . [and] assuming the pumping head was 250 feet and diesel fuel was $1.25 per gallon, the monetary savings would amount to $1,244 per year.| Kansas Water Facts, scs-usda, mid-1980s The mission of the agricultural enterprise has always been to make the natural environment more pliable for a small array of cash crops. Between 1940 and 1980, agricultural production doubled and tripled through a combination of mechanization and agricultural science that was unimaginable earlier in the century. This production ethic deliberately called for high yields, with little regard to how production soaked up minerals and organics from the soil or irreplaceable fresh water from the Ogallala. For more than five decades the plains irrigator has been persuaded to plow his fields and water his plants “fencepost to fencepost” to keep domestic prices low and feed the world. But these remarkable advances were rarely intended to save water. As production costs went up and supplies of soil and water went down, irrigators were hard pressed to choose an appropriate irrigation system that suited their land. These included the complexities of water availability and crop mix, soil types, energy prices, commodity prices, the future of plains irrigation 283 labor costs, and savings in field operations. These decisions needed to be made before selecting an irrigation system.¹ But decisions were often made piecemeal. Dr. Steve Amosson, agricultural economist of AgriLife Extension Service of Texas a&m, notes, “The less efficient the irrigation system, the more effect that fuel price, pumping lift and wage rate have on the cost of producing an irrigated crop.”² More farmers shifted their thinking from changing the environment to changing the crops. According to one model, if irrigation costs doubled it meant a 20 percent reduction in net farm income, forcing closure of low-income farms, large-scale consolidation, and movement toward the deep pockets of vertical agribusiness.³ Original irrigators Wayne Wyatt, Paul Hitch, Steve Irsik, the Gigots, and the real people behind the pseudonyms Tooms and Trescott have come face to face with water scarcity in their own lifetimes. Which produces more dollar value per gallon of water pumped: wheat more than corn, cattle more than grains, hogs more than cattle? Difficult choices cannot be postponed forever. In August 2013, Texas senator Troy Fraser told Carmon McCain, editor of Texas District No. 1’s newsletter, the Cross Section, that “there was a time in 1988 when I stopped and wondered if the cost of a barrel of water would be more than the cost of a barrel of oil. Now, 23 years later, we see that water is driving every aspect of public policy in Texas.”⁴ Fraser emphasized the rise in efficiency: center-pivot irrigation has been adopted on nearly 80 percent of Texas’s irrigated acres, and 87 percent of those acres now use low-pressure spray applications. But even efficient consumption is still heavy consumption. Based on complicated equations, if the plains irrigator in southwestern Kansas or the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle planted corn on a fifth of his land and applied 2.5 acre-feet, his well levels were likely to decline three feet a year. If the same farmer planted less-demanding (0.75 to 1 acre-feet) wheat but on 40 percent of his land (to maintain the same profit), his well levels would decline a bit more.⁵ If the plains farmer could survive on less than a one-foot decline, he would see it as a major accomplishment. Plains irrigators were among the first to use the Conservation Reserve Program of the 1985 farm bill to take their marginal fields out of production. 284 the future of plains irrigation From Short-Term Development to Long-Term Sustainability: What Are the Chances for Change? Pessimists say we cannot recover irrigation’s golden age: 1960 to 1990. Secured by an abundance of inexpensive water that assured high yields, plains farmers could be protected from the impact of low prices while...


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