In spite of the great variation across the Ogallala region in terms of aquifer saturated thickness, water quality, evapotranspiration, cropping practices, and other factors, there are many common elements (biophysical, practical, regional, and cultural) that not only make the Ogallala aquifer region unique but which can inspire engagement in effective water management efforts by and of benefit to the region’s communities.
At the 2018 Ogallala Aquifer Summit, the term “Aquifer Engaged Identity” was used to describe this common outlook and a corresponding range of actions and perspectives aimed at sustaining agricultural productivity and supporting the region’s communities today and into the future.
Aquifer engagement (or “citizenship”): what does it look like?
Key ideas representative of aquifer engagement stressed or highlighted during the Summit included:
- Shifting to a systems approach of “maximizing returns on inputs used” rather than “maximizing yields” can benefit producer’s bottom lines while saving water and reducing input and other production costs.
- An explosion over the past 5-10 years of new irrigation management technologies is transforming agriculture, leading to improvements in water and other input use efficiencies (real and potential), especially when combined other management strategies (e.g. conservation tillage, varietal selection, dynamic irrigation scheduling, planting densities, precision agriculture, crop rotations, etc.).
- Farmer-to-farmer demonstration encourages interest in and adoption of tools and strategies that have potential for increasing water use efficiency and/or water conservation. Programs and events that feature peer-to-peer learning and exchange attract high levels of engagement by producers, researchers, tech companies and other stakeholders interested in finding ways to increase effective water management while maintaining productivity/producer profitability.
- The barrier to entry for effective water management practices and tools is not always cost- or time-intensive: “there’s a list of about a dozen things we could be doing different everywhere”. Adoption of these practices and tools is still modest across the region, which means potentially a significant amount of water savings/efficiency might be achievable in the region without impacting productivity.
- Having data on water use and water levels is an essential tool for individuals as well as for local, state and Federal investment and program development. On farms, having access to this kind of data, along with water and energy audits of irrigation systems can help save water AND money.
- Wider recognition is needed of how important and valuable irrigated commodity production is for the Ogallala region’s economies, communities, and for overall U.S. agricultural output.
- The region’s producers would benefit from having greater flexibility and support for implementing effective water management technologies and strategies (from Federal agencies, state governments, crop advisors, ag lenders and others), including growing a wider range of crops for economic gain that use less water, using dynamic (not static) limited (“deficit”) irrigation, grazing, transitioning to dryland production, etc.
- Engagement by a wide range of stakeholders (including absentee landowners) is needed to effect larger scale shifts in water use and greater adoption of management practices that conserve water and user water more efficiently. The support framework developed and used by stakeholders should include the development of more programs that combine education with cost-share mechanisms to encourage and incentivize effective water management.
- Local engagement combined with some regulation — preferably locally developed and administered — can be effective at shifting water management practices (and attitudes) so that increasing water conservation and overall system efficiency (while maintaining profitability) becomes prioritized.
- Effective response to the region’s water related challenges requires a shared vocabulary/effective communication in combining the expertise and frameworks of a wide range of stakeholders—including producers, tech company representatives, crop advisors, academics, and local, state and Federal agencies, ag lenders, multinational companies, absentee landowners, and others.
- There are many different options/actions water users can take to benefit themselves, the aquifer, and the region, whether a landowner/land user is sitting on 400 feet or 75 feet of saturated thickness. While there’s no one size fits all solution, water management in the region has and will always be evolving and improving. Today, with the range of technologies and (near) real-time data available, farmers are more able than ever to determine if, how, and when they can avoid using a few inches of water each year that won’t benefit their crops, extending the value potentially derived from that water’s use further into the future.
- Continuous regional and cross-state collaboration can benefit the Ogallala region, for example, through the expansion or replication of successful programs and ideas, sharing of information including research findings and the impacts of water management tools or strategies on producer’s bottom lines and/or the aquifer, program development aimed at increasing the adoption of successful water management methods, and leveraging support for education and incentive programs, and targeted research funding.