Last summer, during the height of the drought, West Texas farmers kept watering their cotton crops despite knowing they wouldn't grow. They needed to do so to qualify for federal crop insurance.
"It's as if you're watching a guy in the Sahara Desert pour out water," said Stewart Rogers, who manages a cotton farm near Lubbock. Farmers hate wasting a resource, he added, so "it just angers everybody, too."
Plenty of West Texas farmers found themselves in this situation last year. The most intense drought in recorded Texas history meant that it was so hot and dry by mid-summer that many gave up all hope of producing a crop from irrigated fields. Yet they say they had to keep watering, using precious resources from diminishing aquifers like the Ogallala, because the insurance companies, before making payouts, would ask for proof — like electric bills for pumping — that the farmers had tried to grow a crop.
"We had to keep pumping water when we knew it was a lost cause," said J.O. Dawdy, a farmer near the West Texas town of Floydada, adding, "I knew it was a waste. Everybody knew it was a waste."
Water is so precious in West Texas that a 16-county groundwater district stretching from south of Lubbock into the Panhandle recently introduced rules that will cap the amount of water that farmers can withdraw from the Ogallala — something Dawdy is concerned about.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides federally subsidized crop insurance through its Risk Management Agency. Private companies administer the insurance, which normally, farmers say, covers hazards like hailstorms and freezes. Calls to two such insurers, John Deere Crop Insurance and Rural Community Insurance Services, went unreturned.
"Producers who insure their crop under the irrigated practice are required to irrigate their crop at the proper times and amounts necessary to produce their production guarantee," the USDA said in an email.
Some farmers using advanced watering technologies, like drip irrigation, did produce cotton on irrigated land, sometimes with record yields. It was a good year to do so, because cotton prices soared. (Crop insurance payouts for cotton also soared as cotton prices climbed, though the potential payout amounts for this year have dropped again.)
Dawdy estimates that he spent at least $25,000 to pump water last year to irrigate 175 acres in Lubbock County, even though he eventually accepted that nothing would grow there. "It's a sick feeling," he said. "I hated to go down there and look at it."
Amanda Pool, an insurance agent in the Morton branch of Windmark Crop Insurance, said that most of her cotton-farming clients were in a situation similar to Dawdy's — having to water long past when they knew a crop wouldn’t grow.
"It's very uneconomical for these farmers to continue to water a crop they don't have," she said.
Rogers, the cotton farm manager, said that the matter needs to be addressed, with one possible solution being reducing the insurance payout somewhat in exchange for allowing farmers to stop watering.
The question, essentially, revolves around when the USDA will "release" the crop — declaring it's basically hopeless to produce it. Farmers say such proclamations came too late.
Asked whether the crops could have been released sooner, USDA spokeswoman Kimberly Smith-Brown said in an email: "No, because [the drought] was an event that was so out of the norm that no one could have predicted it."
Amy Hardberger, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund who is teaching at Texas Tech University, said that the solution could include a restructuring of the insurance program or a partnership among regulatory agencies and insurers to specify the circumstances in which farmers can stop watering when it's apparent that a crop will not grow.
The issue of wasted resources last year also extended to "dryland" fields, which are not irrigated. Kirby Lewis, a West Texas farmer, said that because of USDA rules, he planted cotton seeds last year that he knew wouldn't grow in the dry soil.
"I'm like, 'Well, that was so silly,'" he said. "It was a waste of good seed." He planted in late May or early June, and by August or September, "you could dig that seed up and it looked like you'd just put it in the day before."
Farmers are "worried they're going into a season just like last year," said Laurie Diaz, who works for the Altman Group, which facilitates crop insurance for John Deere. Much of West Texas remains in severe drought; still, says Lewis, the soil is more moist than last year.
"Farmers are optimists — they have to be," Dawdy said. "But there are a lot of people that are re-examining their operation, and they may not start out with as much cotton. They may plant just like half a circle."