Ag workers take steps to conserve water

By Argen Duncan: PNT senior writer

Roosevelt County agriculture producers are fighting dwindling water supplies and high costs with a number of water conservation methods.

Dairy owners, farmers and ranchers have all taken steps.

Portales farmer Rick Ledbetter uses specialized plows, water-efficient pivot sprinklers and computer technology to save water.

Someday, agriculture may have to justify the water it uses, Ledbetter said, and he doubts the area will always have enough water to sustain the industry.

New technology is expensive, but because of the cost of water and of electricity or natural gas to powers pumps, he said, there’s no choice.

“Any way we can conserve water saves us a lot of money,” Ledbetter said.

To conserve moisture when plowing, he uses equipment that allows debris to stay in place to hold in water. The method lets him plow less ground and less frequently.

For irrigation, Ledbetter used center pivot sprinklers that allow him to produce a crop while watering at 500 gallons per minute instead of the conventional 1,000 gallons per minute.

Computer panels on the sprinklers can automatically stop or slow the water, which Ledbetter said saves water because the sprinklers are no longer turned off late.

Mike Standefer, soil conservation technician with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Portales, estimated 20 percent of sprinklers in the county have been converted to the efficient “low-energy precision application” variety.

Standefer and NRCS District Conservationist Scotty Savage estimated the sprinklers bring a 10 percent to 30 percent water savings, depending on the age of the sprinklers they replace. They said few county farmers use inefficient flood irrigation or side-rolling sprinklers.

In the dairy business, Standefer said most dairies partially irrigate their crops with waste water and save fresh water.

“There’s just (only) so much you can do there,” Standefer said. “You’ve got to have fresh water because of sanitary reasons.”

He also said many dairies are hand-washing cows instead of using inefficient sprinkler systems. They also rinse their outdoor alleys with waste water instead of fresh water.

Standefer estimated dairies see a 20 percent to 25 percent water savings with those techniques.

For the ranchers’ part, Standefer said they have done a lot of mesquite brush control. After removing the brush, some area springs have begun flowing again, and the water can also go to the Pecos River rather than the brush, he said.

Even with the water conservation, Savage said the efforts are “too little too late” to stop the depletion of local groundwater. The Ogallala aquifer, which provides groundwater in this area, was pumped out in the last 50 years, and the recharge is slower than the usage, she said.

“All the conservation measures in the world are just delaying it,” Savage said.

She expects that the aquifer will eventually be unable to support irrigation, although she believes that there will be enough for domestic use.