Tuesday, October 4, 2016

BLOG: We Get By With a Little Help

by Kirk Welch, North Plains Groundwater Conservation District, Dumas, Texas

In the immortal words of John and Paul, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” The famous song by the Beatles probably didn’t specifically consider the challenges of water conservation outreach, but you get the idea. The point here is, that at one time or another, we all need a little help. In the world of groundwater conservation outreach, it’s sometimes more than a little.

As the assistant general manager in charge of conservation outreach for the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District (GCD), I find that often times the scope of the great ideas we have for extending the reach of groundwater conservation, far exceeds our ability to realize on our own. Whether it’s an idea for an award-winning agricultural demonstration, birthed as a friendly wager amongst our board members, or a project initiated by my predecessor, like our “Save the Planet’s Water Festival”, many of the district’s projects require partners. 

The district was formed in 1955 and celebrated its 60th Anniversary in 2015. It covers all or part of the eight northern most counties in the Texas Panhandle with the southern boundary roughly following the Canadian river. The district encompasses about 7300 square miles overlaying the Ogallala aquifer throughout, as well as the Dockum and Rita Blanca aquifers. The district has about 1,000,000 acres of irrigated cropland and some of the highest groundwater producing counties in the State of Texas. The water table is dropping an average of 2-3 feet a year across the district. Consequently, the heavy reliance on the declining Ogallala aquifer makes conservation a necessary way of life in the North Plains GCD, and we can’t do it alone.

One project that would be absolutely impossible without partners on all sides is the district’s Save the Planet’s Water Festival. Started in 2005, the festivals have hosted almost 6,000 4th graders for this full day of interactive water and natural resource conservation education. Beginning with one festival in Dumas the first year, a festival was added in the town of Perryton in 2006 and finally in Dalhart in 2011. The “Save the Planet’s Water Festivals” are made possible by community partners including Valero Energy, Frank Phillips College, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) - Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), West Texas A&M University, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District, all of the area’s school districts and many private schools, as well as many individual volunteers.

Agriculture conservation demonstration is another extremely resource intensive initiative of the district. Since roughly 95-percent of the groundwater produced in the district is used for irrigation, the board of directors, in 2009, began talking about how the district could demonstrate how agricultural users could conserve, while maintaining viable irrigated operations. The “200-12 Project,” based on the goal of producing 200 bushel corn crops with only 12-lnches of supplemental irrigation, was born out of a challenge between board member/growers who wanted to see who could be the most efficient.

Since beginning as a district-funded demonstration with board members as the only participants in 2010, the “200-12 Project” has received funding from both the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) and the USDA – NRCS, and has involved many of the most progressive farmers in the northern Panhandle, including four members of the district board of directors. In 2015, the district's agriculture demonstrations were energized by a unique private/public partnership with Crop Production Services of Loveland, CO to cooperate in the operation of the district's North Plains Water Conservation Center (WCC). The 320 acre working farm is a showcase for agricultural water conservation strategies and corporate partner, CPS, along with local grower Stan Spain have worked side-by-side with the district to develop this unique project.

The “200-12 Project” received the NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant as part of the Texas High Plains Initiative for Efficient Irrigation Management and Conservation (Texas High Plains Initiative). The Texas High Plains Initiative was a cooperative effort between the district’s “200-12 Project” and the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation, including Texas Tech University, High Plains Underground Water Conservation District and others. With demonstrations spanning the High Plains from north to south, the Texas High Plains Initiative helped extend the reach of the conservation mission through out the region.

After several years of demonstration projects showcasing many best practices in agricultural water conservation, the board of directors wanted to take the next  step to move the initiative from demonstration to producer adoption. Recognizing that one of the biggest obstacles in adoption is the learning curve involved with many of the conservation strategies and technologies, the Master Irrigator program was created as a way to shorten that curve for a group of committed, influential producers. The Master Irrigator curriculum is made up of 4-5, full-day sessions and covers the topics of residue management; remote pivot monitoring and control; irrigation management using soil-moisture probes, telemetry and irrigation scheduling tools; managing irrigation with planting date; use of low-energy precision application irrigation or other high-efficiency delivery system; and adjusting nutrient application to address reduced irrigation. In addition, each session includes the economic implications of the strategies being presented. In its first year, the program attracted a full complement of 25 progressive growers from the area.
Again critical partnerships were instrumental in the success of this project. First, USDA- NRCS agreed to provide a special $1.6 million fund to support the Master Irrigator program. The fund is part of the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, and participants in Master Irrigator are given priority ranking for this special pool of funds. In its first year, over $400,000 were distributed to local growers to implement conservation practices, as a result of their participation in the Master Irrigator program.  Second, Texas AgriLife Extension provided essential technical assistance in program development and content.
These are just a few of the projects in which we proudly partner with industry, academia and the public to further the cause of conserving, protecting and preserving groundwater in the district.
However, I would definitely be remiss in talking about valuable partnerships if I did not include the district’s long-standing relationship with the Groundwater Foundation. The district has been a Groundwater Guardian (GG) Community since 2005. The foundation is a valuable resource for ideas, inspiration and support. The GG program, encourages members to organize like-minded partners within their communities to come together to promote groundwater conservation. The foundation conferences also offer opportunities to network and appropriate, borrow, or out-and-out steal the best ideas for your next initiative. Also, observing the achievements of other Groundwater Guardians inspires us to try new things, look at our existing projects in different ways and ultimately, to be more effective.

And last, but certainly not least, the GG designation in itself has a couple of very important benefits. First, preparation of the annual entry and status reports provides an opportunity for GG Communities to take inventory of, and a critical look at, the merits of each of our projects and programs. The changing dynamics of regulation, communication and various technologies, just to name a few, may determine whether a project needs minor adjustment, a major overhaul, or needs to be scrapped altogether. Second, the public relations benefits of a third-party endorsement of what we are doing, reinforces the credibility and relevance of our organizations.

So, I commend all our fellow conservationists and thank you for any and all ways you have aided my group, or any other, in the cause of groundwater. If you have not worked with one or more of the previously mentioned groups, I would suggest you give them a try. If you have worked with some that I have not listed here, it sounds like we need to talk! We get by with a little help!


Kirk Welch is the Assistant General Manager – Outreach at North Plains Groundwater Conservation District in the northern Texas Panhandle. He has worked for the last 28 years as a communications professional in television news, telecommunications and healthcare education, including the last seven years telling the story of groundwater conservation in the Texas Panhandle. He also serves on The Groundwater Foundation's Board of Directors. Reach him at kwelch@northplainsgcd.org.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the view of The Groundwater Foundation, its board of directors, or individual members.

No comments: