Water on the Texas High Plains
Newcomers moving into the Texas Panhandle may consider our region’s climate and conditions harsh due to its windy nature and periods of insufficient and sporadic precipitation. Many people find difficulty gardening within the limits of our climate and soil conditions, having become accustomed to climates that receive more moisture that are not subject to our winds. Our normal climatic conditions are not extreme, especially when viewed in comparison to areas of the Southwest that experience drier and hotter conditions. Extreme climatic conditions occur everywhere from time to time. If our climate continues to warm as many think, we may be forced to be a great deal more efficient in our use of water.
The Texas High Plains region receives approximately 17 – 21 inches of moisture a year. This statistic classifies our area as a semi-arid region. Many areas of the Texas Panhandle have been able to supplement the annual rainfall with irrigation from underground wells and aquifers, chiefly, the Ogallala Aquifer. However, these resources are being depleted faster than they can naturally be replenished.
Water is one of the most precious resources on Earth, a commodity more in demand as the world’s population and consumers’ needs and wants increase. Although population and people’ needs and wants are not theoretically finite, our water resources are.
Effective Precipitation Can Be Much Less
Our rainfall is sporadic, never dependable. And when it does come, sometimes not all of it is usable. All precipitation is added into the total annual rainfall amount of 17 - 21". Our effective, actual, useable, rainfall is less. How much less depends on gardening practices, soil management and our weather.
- Rainfall in quantities of less than a quarter inch, especially during the heat of summer does scant good. Much is lost through evaporation or moistens only the very top of the soil.
- If turf has more than a half-inch of thatch, this rainfall may not even reach the soil and the root zone.
- If the ground is hard and compacted, lacking organic matter and a healthy biological system that promotes enhanced water absorption and drainage, much of it may run off instead of soaking in.
- Sometimes our rainfall comes in intense cloudbursts, coming too quickly for much of it to soak in, and is lost to runoff.
Xeriscape Gardening -- Focus on Water Conservation
Greater efficiency of water use can and needs to be made on all levels of our existence.
Xeriscape gardening is creative gardening with the goal of water conservation in mind. A successful xeriscape gardener will implement water-conserving techniques in each of the 7 principles, not just with the principle pertaining to irrigation. Xeriscape gardening in the Texas Panhandle includes high, medium and low water-use zones. Depending on water availability, you may decide to plant mostly low water-use plants for greatest water conservation. But there are many more ways in which gardeners can use water more efficiently besides the use of xeric plants, without sacrificing the beauty of their gardens.
This principle of xeriscape gardening has actually been termed, Efficient Irrigation, but I think of it as “Efficient Use of Water.” It encompasses more than just installing a drip irrigation system (the most efficient irrigation system for our dry, hot, sunny and windy climate).
Most books and catalogs I've read in regards to our typical medium and high water-use plants tell us to keep the soil "evenly moist" for best results. Even watering will yield good results, but just adding water to our Panhandle soils is far from the complete answer of what is required for best gardening results. In an attempt to achieve best results, we often over-water. Over time, this causes salinity problems and waterlogged, leached and/or oxygen starved soil.
Early pages of this website show that through better garden design, by amending the soil, by limiting high water-use areas of bluegrass and fescue turf, water use can be greatly curtailed. The use of mulches, proper maintenance and choosing appropriate low water-use plants will also conserve water.
Reduce Voluntarily to Avoid Severe Water Restrictions
Many utilities in Colorado (and the Southwest) have prioritized water use according to three main categories out of necessity.
- Indoor water use is defined as essential (regardless of inefficiency or waste).
- Business use is defined as essential (includes car washes, bottling companies and golf courses).
- Landscaping is defined as non-essential (regardless of the impact on plant related business and homeowners investment in the landscape).
(Information from, the Colorado Gardener, article by Mikl Brawner, Feb/March 2003.)
Water authorities have learned that instituting water restrictions on landscapes isn’t the most effective way to reduce water consumption, it is only one way to regulate it. Voluntary reductions of water use by more efficient use is preferred to mandatory restrictions. However, mandatory restrictions are still a practice that is instituted when supplies become limited during peak demand periods and drought.
Many of our residential landscapes are composed of turf grass that requires an average of an inch of water, or more, per week during the growing season. It has been calculated that for every 1000 square feet of lawn, 626 gallons per week are required, or about 10,000 gallons over the summer. Locally, "during the dry summer of 2002, the city of Amarillo pumped an average of 65 million gallons of water a day," according to Emmett Autrey of the city's water department." Of that, an average of 40 million gallons a day went to watering lawns." (Amarillo Globe-News, January 18, 2003, www.amarillo.com). Over sixty-one percent of our treated water is used for our home landscapes.
It is no wonder restrictions are first placed on irrigating home landscapes during droughts or during peak demand periods. Water is a limited resource in our area as it is in many other areas. Residential landscapes use anywhere from 50 –70 percent of the drinkable water during the hot, growing season. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has similar water restriction guidelines, and drought stages related to water availability and demand. Outside water restrictions are among the first restrictions implemented by the cities within the SNWA. Even though reductions in water use have been effected by the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s campaign and incentives for more efficient use of water, in severe cases it is not enough. SNWA also places restrictions on the type of vegetation that is prohibited as the drought stages progress (www.snwa.com/html/drought_stages.html).
With the implementation of water efficient practices in our residential landscapes, we can all work together to reduce consumption, especially during peak periods, to avoid water use restrictions in our home landscapes. A home landscape with the 7 principles of xeriscape gardening practiced, which includes drought tolerant plants and turf, will be better able to survive if watering is severely restricted.