Deep-well irrigation changes farming

Don McAlavy

Following the end of World War II, the first irrigation wells dug are credited to either N.L. Tharp or L.R. Talley.

Along the east side of Curry County and over into Parmer County, Texas, N.L. Tharp farmed. It was said that he, an inventor, fashioned an upside-down truck differential over the well casing and powered the rig with two tractors with belts to the differential.

Another farmer, working in the Pleasant Hill area, was L.R. Talley, who always claimed that he was the first man in Curry County to farm with a tractor, to have dug the first irrigation well and had the first irrigation sprinkler system.

If it wasn’t these two, then it was some other farmer, but the fact remains that irrigation wells, run by tractors, two car engines, or later by natural gas, revolutionized farming in Curry County to the extent the aquifer made it possible.

From dry land farming methods to irrigation in mostly the southeast quadrant area of Curry County, farmers began to reap 50-60 bushels of wheat an acre, as opposed to the usual 15-20 bushels on dry land, and maybe only producing a good crop once every three years, conditioned on what moisture was received.

Corn crop yields were excellent, as was milo, using irrigation.

The agribusiness firms selling motors, irrigation pumps, pipe and sprinklers sprang up like careless weeds, and the good times rolled.

Curry County began producing the most grain crops in New Mexico, and that included wheat, milo and corn.

Farmers here even tried sugar beets and sunflowers. Area farmers now grow cotton, too, and some specialty farms raise alternating crops of pumpkins, onions, potatoes and other vegetables, to order.

The water in the Ogallala Aquifer is not, as the early well-drillers and land promoters predicted, “inexhaustible.”

The aquifer is being mined, and only about a quarter-inch of rain water ever gets back into the aquifer annually.

In 1976, Curry County Agent Phil Crystal, speaking from 28 years of working in agriculture here, said, “The actual peak of irrigation in Curry County occurred in 1970, and since that time, some of the irrigation wells around the fringe of the irrigation area have begun to dry out.”

He was not the first to say this area was running out of water, but he was one of the most vocal ones saying it.

Back in 1972, Water Inc. was formed to study the problem and find ways to conserve the aquifer.

Officials continued to study it, and in another meeting on May 7, 1997, to discuss the depletion of the water table and to update its water plan, Eastern Plains Council of Governments executive director Lee Tillman said that “in 20 years, water will be more valuable than electricity; it will be more valuable than land. Water levels in wells southeast of Clovis are drying up at a fairly consistent rate – as much as 2 feet per year.”

In 1999, another government-funded study on building a pipeline from Ute Lake to Clovis and beyond got under way, but this water, if this huge project to build a pipeline and pump it over the 600-700-foot Caprock is funded, will not be irrigation water. It will be too expensive.

So far it’s been all talk, but soon, in the early years of the 21st century, decisions that affect everyone have to be made before all the underground water runs dry.

Back on Feb. 9, 1996, Jimmy Roman, a longtime well-driller here, who had this to say: “It’s scary. More people ought to be concerned. But even if our irrigation wells ceased pumping, the irrigation wells across the line in Texas will eventually pump us dry, because their red beds are deeper, some 520 feet down (and our deepest about 100 feet less than that).”