By Mike Linn
New incentives for farmers to conserve water in the area lack the compensation funds and may have come too late to save considerable amounts of water in area wells, local conservation specialists said.
Financial incentives to save water will never outweigh the income irrigation provides through the harvesting of water-thirsty crops, the specialists said.
The state recently allocated $301,466 for Roosevelt County and roughly $370,000 for Curry County farmers who practice state-regulated water conservation. Farmers in Roosevelt County applied for roughly $692,000 of the state funds, more than double what was allocated; officials in Curry County said farmers there also applied for more than the state provided.
The money allocated for the conservation practices, however, is not near enough to make major strides in preserving water from the Ogallala Aquifer, according to Joe Whitehead, the district conservationist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
“We’re about 10 years late, and we need about 10 times the money,” Whitehead said. “We needed to start turning off the pumps years ago. This is like closing the gate after all the animals are out of the pen.”
The approximate amount of water saved annually for both Roosevelt and Curry County would be about 500 million gallons a year, or about 1 percent of the water used annually on farms in both counties, according to figures from Ken Walker, the NRCS East Team leader from Clovis.
Even with the delayed attempts at water conservation, many county farmers applied for the state benefits under three options.
The most popular option yielded 12 applications from Roosevelt County farmers willing to convert irrigated land to permanent grasses. The option pays $100 per acre for three years, but farmers must keep their land grass for 10 years, a stipulation that shunned many from applying.
“The incentive was not enough money, and the three years was not long enough and the 10 years they had to leave the grass was too long,” Whitehead said. “It basically only fit for people who wanted to quit farming anyway, and have grass and run cattle.
“Basically the guys using lots of water are still going to grow crops and make more money than this incentive. We couldn’t offer them enough money.”
Jerry Walker, who owns 78 acres 1 1/2 miles east of Portales, is trying to wind down a career in farming and decided to apply for the incentives. He applied to turn his crop land to grass, and hopes to run cattle in the future.
“I’m just kind of past the point of wanting to actively farm,” Jerry Walker said. “It’s my feeling the water is not going to last all that long anyway, so if we can quit using as much of it as we can then it will last a little longer for the ones who are using it.”
In 1972 Jerry Walker’s two water wells pumped about 1,700 gallons a minute; today the wells pump only 600 gallons a minute, he said.
Jerry Walker, no relation to Ken Walker, said he makes $10,000 to $15,000 annually from the array of crops (corn, alfalfa, wheat) he harvests; he will make $7,800 a year for the next three years if his application is accepted, he said.
For farmers in the prime of their trade this program doesn’t work financially.
“The farmers are all interested in saving water and would be interested in the program but there just wasn’t enough money in it,” Ken Walker said. “We had some farmers interested in the program but not nearly what we expected.
“For the farmer that still has enough water to make a regular crop, it just didn’t pencil out for them right now.”
The last time water replenished the Ogallala Aquifer faster than it was drawn out was about 13 years ago; now water is depleted about three times as much as it is replenished, Ken Walker said.
Water wells that pumped 800 gallons a minute in the early 1990s now pump half that much a minute, Ken Walker said.
The conservation program encompasses areas using water from the Ogallala Aquifer and also include Quay, Harding, Union and Lea counties. The total money allocated for the counties was roughly $1.1 million.