CASNR Water Center promotes water quality research through collaboration
Water. It's one of the basic elements of life. Making sure there's enough for use in agriculture is of vital importance, and it's an area of focus for a research center at Texas Tech University "" the CASNR Water Center in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources.
Effective and efficient crop irrigation comes into focus this month with the recognition of National Water Quality Month, encouraging an examination of household and community efforts to protect the sources of fresh water.
The CASNR Water Center (CWC) acts as a research clearinghouse on water management in all aspects of agricultural and urban landscape use and conservation. Charles West, the Thornton Distinguished Chair of the Department of Plant & Soil Science and director of the CASNR Water Center, said the CWC keeps faculty informed about water-related conferences and grant opportunities while also fostering collaboration between faculty members, colleges within Texas Tech and between Texas Tech and other universities.
"Fortunately, the quality of the Ogallala [Aquifer] is good for agriculture," West said. "We currently have minimal problems with salt buildup for example, though it can be a localized problem if not managed correctly. The aspect of saltiness in groundwater that is of greatest concern is if we tap out the Ogallala then drill deeper to another aquifer, such as the Dockum (Santa Rosa), which contains a higher salt content. Then, we have to be very concerned about the quality of water for agricultural purposes."
Located beneath the U.S. Great Plains, the Ogallala Aquifer is one of the world's largest. Underlying an area of approximately 174,000 square miles, it includes portions of eight states: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.
The CWC is focused on the decline of output from the Ogallala Aquifer. It works closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District to get information out to researchers, agricultural users and the public. The CWC's research efforts aren't limited to irrigation on the High Plains. Good soil management, such as building soil organic matter and minimizing tillage, encourages the infiltration of rain, which recharges aquifers reduces the need for irrigation. Faculty also do research on managing vegetation along streams and ponds in non-irrigated rangeland areas to prevent streambank erosion, maintain habitat for wildlife and provide drinking water for cattle.
Other CWC research interests includes improving management of landscapes to prevent excess amounts of phosphorus, nitrogen, pharmaceuticals and animal hormones moving into surface water bodies. Research and education on water conservation for both urban and agricultural uses are major emphasis areas in CASNR, involving faculty from economics to communication to plant and soil sciences.
The Texas Water Development Board has funded for 10 years a project at Texas Tech called the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation, which monitors water use in various crops, both irrigated and dryland, and calculates the water use efficiency. The Alliance uses this data to educate farmers and ranchers on the most efficient water-management techniques and how to implement them.
"We found early on that quite a few producers were over-irrigating," West said. "So we saw that as low-hanging fruit and focused on that by developing online planning tools which guide producers in proper scheduling of irrigation. In the meantime, we do field comparisons of different irrigation techniques to demonstrate how to deliver just the right amount of water for the crop to make a more profitable return."
West said the recent heavy rains were very helpful in refilling the soil rooting zone with enough water to greatly reduce the need for early-season irrigation, which will temporarily slow the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer. At the same time, the rain fell so hard and so quickly that West has seen soil erosion where the rate of rainfall exceeded the infiltration rate of the soil, causing runoff that took soil with it.
West said one of the brightest opportunities to improve crop use of water involves plant genetics. The goal is to breed more drought-resistant crops that require less water to produce the same or increased yield. Texas Tech has worked closely with major seed companies to develop higher-yield, drought-tolerant and heat-tolerant crops.
The growing West Texas wine industry is a good example, West said, of the production of high-value, water-frugal crops, while farther south there is work being done in the production of olive trees. "The days of being able to irrigate all acres of a farm at a high rate are over," West said. "Some producers are concentrating their irrigation to smaller portions of pivot circles and growing dryland or low-irrigation crops in the rest of the circle."
Climate change also will play a part in water quality and conservation in the future, so the CWC also works with the Texas Tech Climate Science Center to predict what climate change will mean for this area. Faculty in the CWC also collaborates with universities in New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas to share information that can benefit not only the High Plains but other areas as well.
"The CASNR Water Center makes sure the right people know each other and can get together in a collaborative effort to promote water quality and conservation," West said.
Written by George Watson
CONTACT: Eric Hequet, Department Chair, Department of Plant and Soil Science, Texas Tech University at (806) 742-2838 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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