Thursday, September 9th

Farmers restore native grasslands as groundwater disappears

By TAMMY WEBBER Associated Press

In this photo provided by Jude Smith, sand blowing off fields creates a dust storm near Morton, Texas, on May 18, 2021. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is encouraging farmers in a "Dust Bowl zone" that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, to preserve and establish grasslands as the area becomes increasingly dry. (Jude Smith via AP)

MULESHOE, Texas (AP) - For decades, the Texas Panhandle was green with cotton, corn and wheat. Wells drew a thousand gallons (3,785 liters) a minute from the seemingly bottomless Ogallala aquifer, allowing farmers to thrive despite frequent dry spells and summer heat.

But groundwater that sustained generations is drying up, creating another problem across the Southern plains: Without enough rain or groundwater for crops, soil can blow away - as it did during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

"We wasted the hell out of the water," says Muleshoe, Texas, farmer Tim Black, recalling how farmers irrigated when he was a kid. Water flooded furrows or sprayed in high arcs before farmers adopted more efficient center-pivot systems.

His grandfather could reach water with a post-hole digger. Black is lucky to draw 50 gallons (189 liters) a minute from wells up to 400 feet (122 meters) deep.

Now farmers are facing tough choices, especially in parts of Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Some are growing less-thirsty crops or improving irrigation. Others, like Black, are replacing some cash crops with cattle and pastureland.

Tim Black checks on native grasses growing on his farm in Muleshoe, Tex., on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Black planted the grasses to help keep soil from blowing and to provide grazing for his cattle. More farmers are planting native grasses as the Ogallala aquifer dries up, making irrigation of traditional crops more difficult. (AP Photo/Tammy Webber)

And more are planting native grasses that go dormant during drought, while deep roots hold soil and green with the slightest rain.

"There's a reason Mother Nature selected those plants to be in those areas," says Nick Bamert, whose father started a seed company specializing in native grasses 70 years ago. "The natives ... will persist because they've seen the coldest winters and the hottest dry summers."

Black, a former corn farmer, plants native grasses on corners of his fields, as pasture for cattle and between rows of wheat and annual grass.

The transition to cattle, he hopes, will allow his oldest son to stay on the land Black's grandparents began plowing 100 years ago. His younger son is a data analyst near Dallas.

"You want your kids to come back, but damn, there's better ways to make a living than what we're doing," says Black. "It's just too hard here with no water."

Already sand billows off fields during dry spells and clogs fields, ditches and roadways.

Sand that blew off farmers' fields is piled up in a ditch outside Lingo, N.M., near the Texas-New Mexico border on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is encouraging farmers in a "Dust Bowl zone" that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado to establish and preserve grasslands to prevent wind erosion as the area becomes increasingly dry. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Farmers do the best they can, but "everybody knows ... the water's going away," says Jude Smith, a biologist who oversees the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge, established during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl to preserve native prairie and three spring-fed lakes.

More than half the currently irrigated land in portions of western Texas, eastern New Mexico and the Oklahoma Panhandle could be lost by the end of the century, according to a study last year. And the central part of the aquifer could lose up to 40% of irrigated area by 2100.

Those losses might be slowed as farmers adapt to lower water levels, researchers say. But the projections underscore the need for planning and incentives in vulnerable areas.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is prioritizing grasslands conservation in a "Dust Bowl Zone" in parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

But reestablishing native vegetation in the sandy soil over the Ogallala has proven difficult where irrigation ceased on former Kansas farmland. The same is true on land outside the Ogallala previously irrigated with river water, including in Colorado's Arkansas River Valley.

Extended periods of drought that plagued the Southwest over the past 20 years likely will continue, says meteorologist Brad Rippey with the USDA.

So farmers may need to use some remaining groundwater to reestablish native grasses, says study co-author Meagan Schipanski, an associate professor of soil and crop sciences at Colorado State University.

"In an ideal world, there would be some forethought and incentives available" to farmers, Schipanski says.

Jude Smith, a biologist at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge outside Muleshoe, Texas, looks at a big mound of sand on his property on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. A dust storm deposited the sand over a two-day period this spring. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is encouraging farmers in a "Dust Bowl zone" that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado to preserve and establish grasslands to help hold soil in place. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Chris Grotegrut, who has planted 75% of his family's land in native grasses, says most farmers aren't transitioning fast enough.

"Maybe they're using the latest and greatest of equipment and technology in the field, but (that) will not totally offset the change that's coming to them," says Grotegut, who uses native grasses for grazing and plants wheat directly into native grass pastures.

But experts say federal crop insurance and conservation programs often work at cross purposes: Farmers sometimes plant crops even if they're likely to fail, because they're protected by insurance; and cultivating land often is more profitable than government payments for grasslands.

From 2016 through mid-2021, fewer than 328,000 acres (132,737 hectares) were enrolled in the USDA's Grasslands Conservation Reserve Program in Dust Bowl Zone counties, according to USDA data. Enrollment for 2021 ended last month, but the USDA has not released the most recent totals.

In Texas, fewer than 32,000 acres were enrolled in Dust Bowl counties over the past five years - none in Bailey County, where Black lives.

Tim Black loads grass seed into a drill on his tractor before sowing the seed on his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and plants some of his pasture in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, needed to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Although grasslands also can be enrolled in other programs, there was a big push this summer to enroll more in the CRP grasslands program, which allows grazing and was authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, says Zach Ducheneaux, head of the USDA's Farm Service Agency.

The agency sharply increased payments to a minimum of $15 per acre, after they were reduced by the Trump administration, Ducheneaux says.

The transition to grasslands and conservation also is hindered by an agricultural banking system that makes it difficult to obtain loans for anything other than conventional farming and equipment.

But farmers need programs that allow them to earn a living while they make the transition to grasslands and less irrigation, over perhaps 15 years, says Amy Kremen of the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project.

"There's a hunger for action that wasn't there even five years ago," because of the severity of the water loss, Kremen says. "What's at stake is the vitality of communities that depend on this water and towns drying up and blowing away."

Biologist Jude Smith discusses how native grasslands can survive drought and prevent wind erosion as he looks over prairie at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge outside Muleshoe, Tex., on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is encouraging farmers in a "Dust Bowl zone" that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado to preserve and establish grasslands as the area becomes increasingly dry. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Jude Smith, a biologist at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge outside Muleshoe, Texas, looks over dry native prairie on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is encouraging farmers in a "Dust Bowl zone" that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado to preserve and establish grasslands, which can withstand drought. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Jude Smith, a biologist at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge outside Muleshoe, Texas, looks over dry native prairie on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is encouraging farmers in a "Dust Bowl zone" that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado to preserve and establish grasslands, which can withstand drought. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Biologist Jude Smith stands on a bluff overlooking an empty saline lake at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge outside Muleshoe, Texas, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The lakes are fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, which has been become increasingly dry because of irrigation and drought. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Biologist Jude Smith looks over native grasses at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge outside Muleshoe, Texas, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is encouraging farmers in a "Dust Bowl zone" that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado to preserve and establish grasslands, which can survive drought and prevent wind erosion. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers

Biologist Jude Smith stands on a bluff overlooking an empty saline lake at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge outside Muleshoe, Tex., on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The lake is fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, which has been become increasingly dry because of irrigation and drought. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

A natural spring fed by the Ogallala Aquifer fills a stock tank that provides water for wildlife at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge outside Muleshoe, Texas, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The aquifer has become increasingly dry because of irrigation and drought. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Biologist Jude Smith looks over a nearly dry spring at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge outside Muleshoe, Texas, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The spring is fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, which is becoming depleted because of irrigation and drought. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Biologist Jude Smith looks over a nearly dry spring at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge outside Muleshoe, Texas, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The spring is fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, which is becoming depleted because of irrigation and drought. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Biologist Jude Smith stands on a bluff overlooking an empty saline lake at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge outside Muleshoe, Texas, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The lake is fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, which has been become increasingly dry because of irrigation and drought. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black tosses unscented laundry detergent into a stock tank at his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021, to reduce bloating in his cattle. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and has planted some of his land in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, used to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black stands in a pasture of wheat and grass at his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and has planted some of his land in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, used to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black holds a container of unscented laundry detergent near a stock tank on his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and has planted some of his land in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, used to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black tosses unscented laundry detergent into a stock tank at his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021, to reduce bloating in his cattle. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and has planted some of his land in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, used to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black, left, stops to talk to his son, Tyler, on their farm in Muleshoe, Texas, on Monday, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmers now raise cattle and have planted some land in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, used to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black uses binoculars to check out a newborn calf on his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and plants some of his pasture in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, used to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black looks over some of his Black Angus cattle in a feed pen on his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and plants some of his pasture in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, needed to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black checks on some of his Black Angus cattle at his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and plants some of his pasture in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, needed to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

A cow nurses her 4-month-old calf at Tim Black's Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. Black, a longtime corn farmer, now raises cattle and plants some of his pasture in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, needed to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Cattle run toward feed on Tim Black's Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. Black, a longtime corn farmer, now raises cattle and plants on some of his pasture in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, needed to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black's cattle eat feed on his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021, because the pasture is not yet tall enough to turn them out. Black, a longtime corn farmer, now raises cattle and plants some of his pasture in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, needed to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black checks on some of his Black Angus cattle at his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and plants some of his pasture in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, needed to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black climbs down from his tractor that he's using to sow grass on his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and plants some of his pasture in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, needed to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black uses his tractor's GPS system while planting grass seed on his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and plants some of his pasture in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, needed to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black uses his tractor's GPS system while planting grass seed on his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and plants some of his pasture in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala Aquifer, needed to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black adjusts the water application rate on a pivot for a newly planted field on his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and plants some of his pasture in wheat and native grass - and rations water use -- because the Ogallala Aquifer is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black closes a valve while swapping water from one pivot to another on his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and plants some of his pasture in wheat and native grass - and rations water use -- because the Ogallala Aquifer is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Water is being applied to a wheat field at Tim Black's Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle and plants some of his pasture in wheat and native grass - and rations water use -- because the Ogallala Aquifer is drying up. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tyler Black adjusts a spray head on a pivot at his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021, as he prepares a pasture for grass-planting. Black and his father raise cattle and plant pasture in wheat and some native grass - and ration water use -- because the Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tyler Black attaches a new sand drain on the end of a pivot on his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021, as he prepares to plant grass in a pasture. Black raises cattle and plants pasture in wheat and some native grass - and rations water use -- because the Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tyler Black attaches a new sand drain on the end of a pivot on his Muleshoe, Texas, farm on Monday, April 19, 2021, as he prepares to plant grass. Black raises cattle and plants pasture in wheat and some native grass - and rations water use -- because the Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Tim Black checks on native grasses growing on his farm in Muleshoe, Texas, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Black planted the grasses to help keep soil from blowing and to provide grazing for his cattle. More farmers are planting native grasses as the Ogallala aquifer dries up, making irrigation of traditional crops more difficult. (AP Photo/Tammy Webber)