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Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, said at a March 2015 symposium that farmers in the state have little room to save more water.
Miller, responding to Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune, prefaced his claim by saying Texas is out of "surplus water." He went on to say that as much as the state has urbanized, agricultural production has surged — and all that with farmers needing less water.
"So agriculture is at 98, according to the water development board, we’re at 98 percent efficiency," meaning 2 percent of water used to raise crops isn’t going to its intended purpose.
"So we’re just about maxed out as to what we can do on the conservation end of it," Miller said.
Luke Metzger of Environment Texas heard Miller’s statement and asked us to check it out. He noted too that a skeptical crowd member at the event asked Miller to explain. In reply, Miller said a lot of irrigation occurs underground, most runoff water is recaptured and most traditional irrigation methods have ebbed. "It’s pretty highly sophisticated," Miller said.
To get our grip on his "maxed out" claim, we asked the Texas Department of Agriculture to elaborate. By email, agency spokesman Bryan Black provided a March 11, 2015, presentation by the Texas Water Development Board, whose mission centers on supporting the conservation and responsible development of water for Texas, stating Texas agricultural "producers now achieve up to 98 percent irrigation efficiency."
Black later quoted a 2012 report from the Texas Water Resources Institute, based at Texas A&M University, stating: "Irrigation efficiency has gone from 60 percent to 88–95 percent in much of the state today, allowing Texas to get much more value and agricultural output from its water." Black said that according to the report’s lead author, the institute’s associate director, Kevin Wagner, "the most up-to-date number on irrigation efficiency is now around 98 percent."
An institute press release on the report quoted Dana Porter, an AgriLife Extension agricultural engineering expert, saying that in Texas over the past few decades, "significant advances have been made in irrigation efficiency, as many irrigators now use high-efficiency advanced irrigation technologies, such as low-pressure center pivot sprinkler systems or subsurface drip irrigation.
"However," Porter said, "challenges remain and there are opportunities for continued improvements in water use efficiency through application of situation-appropriate efficient irrigation technologies and best management practices, including irrigation scheduling, and through use of drought-tolerant crop varieties and integrated crop and pest management practices."
According to the report, as of 2008, more than 6 million acres were irrigated in Texas--mostly in West and South Texas--accounting for more than 10 percent of the nation’s irrigated land. Total annual irrigation water use has remained steady, the report said, averaging approximately 9.5 million acre-feet, since the late 1970s.
The report presented one path to a "98 percent" statement, saying: "Historically, most agricultural irrigation was applied using flood and furrow irrigation; however, most of the state has undergone a mass conversion from these systems to more efficient irrigation systems" topped by low-pressure sprinkler systems that apply water at or below a crop’s canopy, it said.
"As of 2008, center pivot sprinklers are used on nearly 80% of Texas’ irrigated acres, and 87% of those acres are using low-pressure center pivot sprinklers. Furrow and flood irrigation account for less than 20% of irrigated acres today. Further, the highly efficient subsurface drip irrigation, in which there is minimal evaporative loss, is increasingly being adopted and now comprises almost 3% of irrigated acres.
"Because of this adoption, irrigation efficiency has gone from 60% to 88–95% in much of the state today, allowing Texas to get much more value and agricultural output from its water."
An accompanying chart indicates sprinkler and drip irrigation was in place for more than 80 percent of the state’s farmland in 2008 with less conservative furrow and flood irrigation used in 19 percent.
Best efficiency, subsurface drip irrigation
Next, we reached out to the institute’s Wagner, who said by phone he would have added a phrase to what Miller said by specifying that farmers can achieve up to 98 percent efficiency "if they use subsurface drip irrigation" instead of less conservative methods--and drip irrigation was being used by only 3 percent of Texas farmers as of 2008, he added by email.
Significantly, Wagner said, it’s harder to adapt subsurface irrigation in parts of the state where water isn’t always immediately available. That’s because drip systems count on a steady supply of water, he said. "We can never get 100 percent of our acres to subsurface drip without significantly changing our water delivery system," Wagner said.
Wagner told us 95 percent efficiency can be achieved by using the most efficient center pivot sprinklers "but again, not all farms have implemented the most efficient systems on the market."
"Because center pivots have been adopted in much of the state," Wagner wrote, "most irrigation is in the range of 88-95% efficiency. However, we continue to work with producers to improve irrigation efficiency and timing."
Going forward, he said, "improvements on the vast majority of irrigated acres are going to be much smaller as we now tweak technology and management. So in a sense, ‘the low hanging fruit’ has been picked."
Earlier, we connected with the water development board’s Robert Mace, who also stressed drip irrigation as key to achieving 98 percent efficiency. "We don’t think farmers are maxed out," Mace said. "Everybody can do a little better with some advice."
"Individual ag producers are achieving upwards of 98 percent irrigation efficiency," Mace said. "But there is still work to be done."
Miller said Texas agriculture is "at 98 percent efficiency" in water use and "just about maxed out as to what we can do on the conservation end of it."
Farmers are not just about maxed out, experts told us, though those who use drip irrigation may be close. Growers using sprinkler methods may get 88 percent to 95 percent efficiency.
On balance, we rate this claim Half True.
HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
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Emails, Bryan Black, director of communications, Texas Department of Agriculture, March 11-12, 2015
Press release and report, "New publication sheds light on agricultural water use in Texas," Texas Water Resources Institute, November 2012; "Status and Trends of Irrigated Agriculture in Texas," Texas Water Resources Institute, 2012
Email and telephone interview, Kevin Wagner, PhD, associate director, Texas Water Resources Institute, Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources, College Station, April 9, 2015 and April 14, 2015
Telephone interview, Dr. Robert Mace, deputy executive administrator of Water, Science, and Conservation, Texas Water Development Board, Austin, March 12, 2015
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