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Aquifers need stewardship

Let’s rejoice that the House killed its version of the five-year farm bill.

The death came for numerous reasons, including differences over the food stamp program. What’s important in this news is that now Congress has a chance to reconsider policies that reward agricultural production and ecological stewardship.

This is a management problem hardly peculiar to Texas, the second-largest agricultural state. The Environmental Working Group reported in May that all seven states that use the High Plains Aquifer have seen their water table fall by more than 150 feet in some areas.

The water source runs from the Texas Panhandle up to South Dakota. In other words, it runs underneath America’s breadbasket.

Farmers and ranchers rely heavily on that aquifer. The report claimed 99 percent of its water is used for agricultural purposes.

Of course, some farmers and ranchers already give careful thought to the stewardship-production balance. You see creative irrigation practices on the High Plains of Texas and elsewhere. You find managers of groundwater districts trying to keep aquifers from being overproduced. And you see operators such as Nathan Kells, who the New York Times recently reported has shifted to raising dairy cows on his Kansas farm.

But not all producers find the balance. Otherwise, we wouldn’t see aquifers being challenged so severely.

Janie Hopkins studies water supplies in Texas’ major aquifers. She and other geoscientists at the state’s water agency install and track wells that let them record how much water these underground sources contain.

Lately, the situation has been anything but pretty. In March, Hopkins and her Texas Water Development Board crew reported the median water level decline from 2010-2011 was nearly three times greater than the decline in major aquifer levels from 2009 to 2010.

This is more than a data point to farmers and ranchers in the Panhandle, Central Texas and other regions where groundwater is king. Without sufficient water supplies, they can’t grow their crops or raise their livestock.

Naturally, agricultural producers can’t make it rain. But they can control how they farm and ranch. That affects how long the aquifers that run underneath their fields and pastures last.

If they practice innovative irrigation techniques or grow grasses and crops that demand less water, they can give an aquifer more time to replenish. At the least, they can stretch out the lifetime of the reserves.

Congress can help make that happen by beefing up parts of the bill that reward land conservation. The Senate cut conservation spending by $3.5 billion. The House tried to reduce it by $4.8 billion. Those cuts mean less money for programs that reward ranchers and farmers for protecting the soil, water and air.

For example, Congress has previously invested in the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program. Although the need for those programs remains, the bills are affecting them and other programs. Ag Week reported this month that 1.3 million acres of U.S. wetlands have been lost since 2006.

Fortunately, there’s a way to finance more conservation spending.

Congress could reduce Washington’s share of the premiums farmers pay for crop insurance, which protects them against the weather and price fluctuations. The government funds an average 62 percent of a farmer’s insurance payment, regardless of the person’s financial condition.

Two Wisconsin legislators – Democratic Rep. Ron Kind and GOP Rep. Tom Petri – introduced an amendment to the House bill that would have limited Washington’s underwriting of crop insurance premiums to $40,000 per farmer. The pair also wanted to curtail premium assistance to farmers making over $250,000 annually in net profit.

Their proposal went down. But, interestingly, they gained more votes than the entire farm bill did in the House. The result suggests an appetite, if you will, for reforming crop insurance payments.

Another way to improve conservation is to require farmers to practice conservation practices in return for crop insurance payments. The Senate made the link, but the House did not. The lower chamber should do so with its second chance to rewrite the farm bill.

Those wells Hopkins and her team are monitoring won’t show improvement overnight. Droughts are a reality for the time being. But better farm and ranch practices can yield crops, produce livestock and save lands.

William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News. His email address is’s note: Leonard Pitts Jr. will return this month.William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News. His email address is’s note: Leonard Pitts Jr. will return this month.


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