Editor's note: The following commentary was written by Texas Farm Bureau Director of Publications Mike Barnett and was originally posted on the Texas Agriculture Talks webiste.
The chatter about where Texas gets water to meet a future population explosion has taken an ugly turn lately as agriculture—the state’s largest water user—is being accused of wasting water.
The criticism comes on the heels of last year’s devastating drought which left many areas high and dry and has many speculating on how Texas will meet future water needs.
What really grabbed my attention was a recent editorial in the Houston Chronicle that suggested agriculture will be responsible for future water shortages in high growth areas of Texas, which is nonsense.
Then there is an activist group called Environment Texas that is on a water conservation campaign, labeling agriculture and other users as “water hogs” in their attempts to grab attention and stir change.
What seems to be forgotten in this debate is that people have to eat. And crops and livestock need water to grow. Still, agriculture is an easy target because it is the single biggest user of water in Texas. And I’m not here to tell you that every single drop of that water is used wisely. But I can tell you a remarkable record of agriculture’s water use in Texas over the past four decades.
The total number of irrigated farm acres in Texas declined 18 percent from 1974 to 2008, while the total amount of water used for irrigation dropped by 32 percent. Those numbers come from the USDA Census of Agriculture, Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey.
Irrigated corn production increased from 138 bushels per acre in 1981 (the first year irrigated corn numbers are available) to 202 bushels per acre in 2010, a 46 percent increase, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Data Base. Irrigated cotton production per acre more than tripled from 335 pounds in 1974 to 1,015 pounds in 2010.
In other words, Texas farmers are doing a whole lot more with a lot less water. That doesn’t sound like water waste and inefficiency to me.
But we can do better. As can industry and municipalities. We have to because Texas will only get thirstier.
Conservation is part of the answer. But so is exploration of new methods of obtaining fresh water such as desalination and recycling waste water. We need to repair existing water distribution systems and draw plans for future systems. New incentives to use less water must be developed and funding for water improvements must be addressed.
The Texas water debate may become intense and ugly, especially if Texans choose sides and pitch rural interests against urban. The better alternative is to work together to wisely manage this precious resource to ensure our prosperity for years to come.