Even in good years, Texas County, in the center of the Oklahoma Panhandle, is one of the driest, windiest parts of the state.
But the county, sitting atop the Ogallala Aquifer, is also the state’s heaviest user of water. Those two factors combined have led state water officials and farmers in the area to look for ways to make better use of the water they have.
Those efforts have led to a more than 60 percent drop over the past two decades in the amount of water the county uses per year, according to a report from the Panhandle Regional Economic Development Coalition and Oklahoma Panhandle Agriculture and Irrigation.
Fred Fischer and his family grow wheat, milo and corn on a farm just west of Hooker. Over the past several decades, the farm has been a part of a shift toward using new technology to improve irrigation practices and ultimately make better use of the water they draw from the aquifer.
Farming in the Panhandle brings a special set of challenges that don’t exist elsewhere, Fischer said. Dry, hot conditions coupled with high winds means the ground can dry out quickly.
“We try to raise a crop in a climate where we don’t get much help from Mother Nature,” he said.
Hooker only receives about 18 inches of rain per year, according to National Climatic Data Center records. Oklahoma City receives about 36.5 inches of rain per year, and Tulsa receives about 41 inches of rain. That means ground water is usually the only water available for farmers in Texas County.
In the early part of the 20th century, farmers mostly used so-called furrow irrigation, in which they pumped water from the ground into short canals and siphoned water from the canals into irrigation furrows. The practice was inefficient, Fischer said, because water sat on the ground longer, meaning more of it was lost to runoff and evaporation.
Beginning in the 1960s, farmers began to adopt sprinkler systems to irrigate their fields. Early sprinkler systems had sprayer heads that sat atop long pipes, shooting jets of water across fields. Those systems were more efficient than furrow irrigation, Fischer said, but water was still lost to wind and evaporation.
Now, farmers use improved sprinkler systems that spray water from a few inches up to about five feet high, depending on soil conditions. Less water is lost to the wind from that height.