Securing Food Supply for Future Generations through Groundwater Management: A Policy Analysis Approach

By Almas, Lal K.; Taylor, Robert H. et al. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Securing Food Supply for Future Generations through Groundwater Management: A Policy Analysis Approach


Almas, Lal K., Taylor, Robert H., Guerrero, Bridget, Amosson, Stephen H., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction: Translocation of businesses and population to the Western United States are resulting in increasing municipal and industrial water demand. However, the demand for irrigation still dominates water use in the Western United States. Irrigation is the largest single water user in the United States, often reaching 90 percent of total water consumption in the western states. Limited water supplies and increasing demand are forcing the western states to initiate long-range water planning and management to ensure that adequate supplies are available in the future.

Texas is no different from other western states in facing the water allocation dilemma. In particular, the Texas Panhandle personifies the problem. The Texas Panhandle is not only faced with an expanding urban/industrial sector, but the livestock industry has which been expanding at an impressive rate, further compounding the water allocation problem.

The area's temperate climate, sparse population and environmental conditions such as low rainfall and deep water tables favor concentrated livestock. More than 30 percent of the nation's fed beef supply is produced in the Texas Panhandle and the surrounding counties in New Mexico and Oklahoma (TCFA, 2009). The number of fed cattle in Texas has increased from 3.1 million head in 1970 to 5.7 million head in 2007 (TASS, 2007). Out of 5.7 million head fed and marketed in 2007 in Texas, 4.9 million head were from the Texas Panhandle area (TASS, 2007). Fed cattle numbers in the Texas Panhandle exploded in the late sixties and early seventies. Since then fed cattle numbers have steadily grown.

The same conditions that have brought the cattle industry to the area have recently attracting the hog industry to the region. The swine industry in this area has expanded more than tenfold during the 1990s. Growth of the swine industry has continued in the area with the opening of Texas Farms in Perryton, Texas. It is anticipated that many satellite industries will come to the area to support the expanding swine industry increasing the demand on existing water supplies. The dairy industry in the region is currently seeing a similar if not more impressive expansion.

The growing livestock industry in the region has increased the demand for feed grains in the area. In fact, the area has become a grain deficit production region resulting in premiums to be paid for feed grains. This expanding demand for feed grain has enticed area producers to increase irrigation and place more acres under cultivation. The result has been increased water demand for irrigation. Since there is no renewable surface source of irrigation water in the Panhandle and only limited recharge of the Ogallala aquifer in this area, irrigation water is a fixed supply and excessive pumping results in shortening the economic life of the aquifer and reduces the returns to the resources held by the farmer (Amosson et al. 2001).

The increased need for water conservation in the region has also led to the adoption of more efficient irrigation equipment such as the use of low-energy-application (LEPA) and low-energy-spray-application (LESA) systems (Howell, 2001). However, the efficiency improvements with the new irrigation technology have resulted in lowering the marginal cost to irrigate ($/unit of water applied). This reduced cost in turn encourages producers to continue and sometimes expand irrigation often resulting in more water use than before.

The main goal of any conservation policy is to limit the use of a resource in an effort to preserve the quantity and quality of that resource. Policies for conserving groundwater are aimed at preventing depletions of the aquifer in an effort to assure a continued supply of water for many years. This is very important when a region is rural in nature and in which the local economy is dependent on agriculture. Such is the case in the Texas Panhandle, with area municipalities also relying on the aquifer to meet as much as 50% of the water needs for other uses in addition to agriculture.

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