NRCS seeks to save Ogallala Aquifer by convincing farmers to abandon water rights

Mar 15, 2013

The irrigation pivots at Mike Poelma's farm are defunct, now that he has given up his water rights and switched to dryland agriculture.
Credit Willow Belden

A small corner of southeast Wyoming sits over the Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala is a huge aquifer that stretches from Wyoming and Nebraska all the way to Texas. It’s a key source of water for agriculture, but it’s being depleted faster than it can recharge. So the Natural Resources Conservation Service is trying to help save it. Here in Wyoming, they’re doing that by encouraging farmers to give up their water rights. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.

WILLOW BELDEN: It’s not clear how long it will take before the water in the Ogallala runs out. There’s a lot that scientists don’t understand about how aquifers work, and unpredictable factors like weather come into play. But it is clear that the current rate of water consumption is unsustainable. State Engineer Pat Tyrrell says Laramie County monitoring wells indicate that water levels have dropped a foot or two per year over the past few decades. And he says that’s worrisome.

PAT TYRRELL: Tens of feet in an aquifer that may be a hundred, two hundred feet in total thickness, is important. … So we are concerned about that aquifer.

BELDEN: In parts of Texas, the aquifer has already been depleted so much that irrigated agriculture is impossible. The Natural Resources Conservation Service is trying to keep that from happening elsewhere. Jim Pike is in charge of the effort in Wyoming. He’s targeting farmers, because they typically use a lot of water for irrigation.

JIM PIKE: I’m offering a payment for them to give up, basically give up their water allocation, for the greater good.

BELDEN: In other words, Pike is trying to convince farmers to give up their water rights. Forever. In exchange, he offers a financial incentive.

Mike Poelma is one farmer who agreed to Pike’s proposal. Poelma’s farm sits on a flat, open plain near Carpenter. Three years ago, he abandoned his wells and switched to dryland farming. That means he now relies solely on rainwater. As we drive around the property, Poelma points out the shriveled, brown remnants of a failed crop.

MIKE POELMA: This is what was dried up and became dryland. And that was millet, and you can see how it just didn’t grow and it burnt up.

BELDEN: Poelma says without water, he can’t grow as much. Last year, he didn’t harvest anything. But then again, his harvests had not been good for a while. That’s because in recent years, his wells had been drying up.

POELMA: I didn’t have any water, period – or not much. … It was borderline whether it was worth turning on the wells.

BELDEN: Because his wells were in such bad shape, Poelma says it made sense to sign on to the NRCS program and give up his water rights. The NRCS has been paying him $35,000 a year, which helped make up for the lost crops – and got him out of debt. The payments end after three years, but he says he’s not worried about the future.

POELMA: I’m 60 years old, and all my debts are paid off, so I don’t have to make nearly as much as I used to.

BELDEN: But in many cases, getting farmers to abandon their wells has been a tough sell. Irrigated land can produce at least twice as much – and in some cases, 10 times as much – as dryland. So if you switch to dryland, you have far fewer crops to sell. That’s why hay producer Todd Fornstrom decided NOT to participate in the NRCS program.

TODD FORNSTROM: I guess what I would say is it would be a way to get out of farming in a step-by-step process. And we’re kind of in the expansion mode or maintenance mode, rather than trying to get out of farming.

BELDEN: Plus, property values drop if the land has no water rights. Still, experts say abandoning wells doesn’t involve as big a financial hit as you might think. Danelle Peck is an ag economist at the University of Wyoming. She says, sure, switching to dryland reduces productivity. But your electricity costs also go way down, because you don’t have to pump water.

DANELLE PECK:  So there’s a little bit of a trade-off: lower yields, but also lower costs.

BELDEN: So far the NRCS has convinced producers in Laramie County to stop irrigating two thousand acres of farmland, which is saving a billion gallons of water a year.

DAVID BRAUER: Two thousand acres is not large scale, quite honestly.

BELDEN: That’s David Brauer with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Texas. He says based on their experiences, meaningful water conservation only happens under two circumstances:

DAVID BRAUER: One, there’s large-scale buy-in. … Second, there’s some sort of regulation and policy put in place, either by a water district or whatever, that limits the amount that’s pumped.

BELDEN: But Pike says they have to start somewhere.

PIKE: It’s a step in the right direction. … But we need to do more. We haven’t solved the problem here by any means.

BELDEN: Pike says if they can double the amount of acreage that’s taken out of irrigation in Laramie County, it could start to make a noticeable difference.

Brauer says it’s still probably just buying time. Still, he says buying time is worthwhile. He says if the aquifer is depleted more slowly, it will give scientists and the ag community time to come up with ways to deal with the dwindling water supply – whether that means pumping water from the east coast, or modifying crops to need less water, or just learning how to farm on dryland more efficiently. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.