High Plains agricultural drought focus of study - Albuquerque Journal

High Plains agricultural drought focus of study

The Ogallala Aquifer supplies water for 20% of the corn, wheat, sorghum and cattle produced in the U.S., sprawling 174,000 square miles across eight states, from South Dakota to Texas. (Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/TNS)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Thirty years ago, farmers in dry eastern New Mexico were growing fields of winter wheat and cotton.

Over time, many have switched to sorghum, which uses less water.

But the Ogallala Aquifer is still on the decline. Megadrought and higher temperatures only add to water scarcity.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded $750,000 to a research team at New Mexico Tech and New Mexico State University for a three-year project studying ways to address agricultural drought in the High Plains region of Quay, Curry, Roosevelt and De Baca counties.

Haoying Wang, the project director and an assistant professor in New Mexico Tech’s Business and Technology Management Department, said agricultural drought means the production system does not have a sustainable water supply.

“Most of our agriculture is irrigated, so it means that plants or crops or trees can not get the minimum required water supplies,” Wang said. “That deficit of water supply, either through rainfall or through irrigation, is going to affect the crop yield. But if the production system is resilient to drought, then the yield can recover.”

A research team of post-docs and university students will collect and analyze soil and water samples from the region.

The team will create models to explore how the entire agricultural production system adapts to shifting climate conditions.

They will also study how changes in water savings, irrigation techniques, aquifer pumping or crop strategies affect the system.

Scientists will work with local agricultural extension offices on yearly outreach events for farmers and land managers to learn about the research.

Wang, who farmed in China before pursuing a science education in the U.S., said the project has an economic focus of helping producers “better manage soil as well as the groundwater” to sustain their crop yields even during drought.

Research data will eventually be hosted on newmexicowaterdata.org, part of a statewide initiative to make water data more user-friendly.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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