Farmers restore native grasslands as groundwater disappears

by Joseph K. Clark

MULESHOE, Texas — 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 are 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 the 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.

grasslandsNow farmers face 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.

And more are planting native grasses that go dormant during drought, while deep roots hold soil 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 are 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. Farmers do their best, 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.

According to a study last year, 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. And the central part of the aquifer could lose up to 40% of irrigated area by 2100.

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

The U.S. Department of Agricultprioritizeszing grasslands conservation in a “Dust Bowl Zone” 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.

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 offset the change 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 is often 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.

Although grasslands also can be enrolled in other programs, there was a big push this summer to register 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 the Trump administration reduced them, Ducheneaux says.

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

But farmers need programs that allow them to earn a living. At the same time, they 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.” Follow Tammy Webber on Twitter: @twebber02Read more of AP’s climate coverage at

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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