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Jun 23, 2017

Water and the future of farming in Parmer County

What if you knew the most important input for production on your farm may be gone in as little as 10 years? Would you worry about going to work every day and being able to provide for your family? Many West Texas farmers are faced with this every day, as the levels of our underground water table are rapidly diminishing. How do you be positive about the future when the future for farmers is disappearing in gallons of water?

The 2011-12 drought may be over, but the water crisis in West Texas is boundless. With the crazy weather patterns in the Panhandle, farmers have to rely on irrigation to water their crops. Our water in Parmer County lies 350 feet below the dry West Texas topsoil, in the Ogallala Aquifer. 30% of the water used to irrigate crops in the entire U.S. comes from the Ogallala aquifer. We, along with the rest of the High Plains region, rely on the aquifer for water to use in all aspects of our lives, beyond farming.

The water from the Ogallala to is used to drink, cook with, bathe, to water our yards, and to feed our animals. The aquifer is the very reason that people can live in the dry wasteland known as West Texas. But the Ogallala isn’t keeping up with the large demand, and it is steadily disappearing as we speak. The aquifer has depleted at a rate of 325 billion gallons every year for the past 4 decades. In Parmer County, where I live, we have seen a drop of over 100 feet of water in the past 70 years.

My dad, Ryan, is a 4th generation farmer, and he has about 18 dry wells in fields that used to be plentiful with water when he was growing up. When he was younger, farming with my granddad, wells used to pump 750 gallons a minute, a rate that would fill an entire Olympic-size pool in an afternoon. These days we are lucky to get 50 gallons a minute out of our wells. Fifty gallons a minute, makes it extremely hard to water crops.

Coming from a farming family, this aquifer is very important to me. Across the 8 states it touches, the aquifer supports nearly 20% of the cotton, corn, wheat, and cattle produced in the U.S. If the aquifer goes dry, more than $20 billion worth of food and grain will vanish from the world’s markets. 

Thirty-nine percent of the aquifer is predicted to disappear in the next 50 years, and the high plains region, once called the breadbasket of America, will not be farmable. Irrigated agriculture is the base of our economy is West Texas, and if we run out of water things will go downhill very fast!  Landowners want to conserve the aquifer, but they struggle with economic growth, and still being able to make money. With the cost of chemicals, seed, and equipment rising, and the price of crops staying the same or dropping, farmers struggle in today’s economy. If the Ogallala goes dry, scientists say that it will take about 6,000 years to refill!

Many farmers in West Texas have converted their fields and become dryland farmers. My dad has converted about 3,500 acres to dryland since he began farming in 1998. Dryland farming is very risky because farmers are solely dependent on rainfall to quench their thirsty crops. Though, dryland farming is easier and cheaper, it does not yield as much as irrigated crops. Therefore, irrigated farming makes more money, so it is almost impossible for farmers to depend on dryland crops only.

So how do we stretch out the life of the Ogallala for future generations of farmers, and the future residents of West Texas? So far no one had really come up with an ideal, fix all solution. There are temporary fixes to extend the longevity of the Ogallala and our water supply, such as metering wells and limiting water usage. And to quit sending water from the Ogallala to major cities. The residents of West Texas can also do their part by conserving water in their homes every day.

On a personal note, my two brothers and I would love to continue the multi-generational family farm in West Texas. The legacy that my great-great-granddad, Johnnie Williams, started when he settled in Farwell is something I take great pride in. He wanted a good life for his family, and to raise us to be good people, that love agriculture and love God. I honestly want nothing more than to raise my family in the culture and heritage, where I was raised, and love so much.

One thing I can do is to rely on my relationship with God, pray for water wet summers, and trust that he will take care of us down in West Texas. My family often has this conversation at family dinners or birthday parties. We talk about the future of our family and the future of our farm operation, instead of being worried about the future, my family chooses to live every day to the fullest, and keep on farming. 

Abraham Lincoln once said “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” In a way, we are reaching the end of our rope here in West Texas, but you better believe that we will tie a knot and hang on tight.

By Erica Grace Williams
Editor’s note:  Erica Williams gave this speech at the Farwell FFA Banquet in May.