Danny Krienke farms sorghum and other crops in Ochiltree County, in the far northern section of the Panhandle. He is a board member of the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District, which regulates groundwater in eight counties in the upper Panhandle.
Krienke has been involved in water planning in the Panhandle for years. During a trip this week to Austin, he spoke to the Tribune about the district’s unusually strict water metering requirements for farmers and how technology like the iPad has given the concept of the gentleman farmer a whole new meaning.
This transcript of the interview has been edited and condensed.
TT: How bad is the drought up in the Panhandle? And which crops are most affected?
Krienke: I had 60 percent of a wheat crop in 2011 and about 40 percent of a wheat crop in 2012 [using nonirrigated, or dryland, farming]. So we did get a little bit of winter moisture that allowed us to harvest some wheat.
The summer crops — we don’t grow dryland corn or soybeans because we don’t get enough rain. So the summer crops would be grain sorghum and cotton. And for 2011 and 2012, we basically didn’t harvest any dryland on the summer crops. We were fortunate that we have crop insurance available. That gets you back your expenses. Nobody makes any money with the crop insurance. It’s a safety net that at the best allows you to recoup expenses.
TT: Let’s talk a little about [metering]. That’s a controversial issue in the state.
Krienke: Yes, it is.
TT: When did you North Plains start requiring meters [for new wells]?
Krienke: I began metering on my farm in 1998. So I’ve been metering for quite some time. I was associated with a [demonstration program.] Some of my neighbors, when I first started going this, said, “Oh, man, the state’s going to use that against you.” And I said, “Look, in the future we’re going to be required to account for our water. So would you rather account for it in the most accurate manner possible?” And the answer is yes. So I wasn’t afraid of [the meters].
Now, as far as districtwide, prior to 2005 [if certain “strategic conservation areas” showed significant aquifer depletion, they were supposed to get meters. But ultimately we decided] why don’t we look at the district — all of it is strategic conservation. It’s all of our responsibility to conserve. Then you say, 'Okay, how do you treat everybody sort of equally?' Well, we have to know how much they’re pumping. So how do we know how much they’re pumping? We have to measure. Everything you think is valuable in life, I think you measure. It’s kind of ironic. We have these sophisticated gauges and gadgets on our irrigation motors. We think more of our irrigation motors than about the water, for crying out loud.
In January 2005, we got the rules passed. [They required meters on new water wells; existing wells can still use “alternative methods to measure water use, such as using the fuel bill for pumping to estimate water use.]
TT: How much do the meters cost?
Krienke: They’re about $1,200, and there can be some installation cost. The thought is, okay, if I’m drilling new wells, and I’m spending money, and I’m rearranging my pipeline, and I’m doing things anyway — just as well put a meter on while I’m doing that. Is the $1,000 cost of the meter really that bad when you’re spending $100,000 to drill a well, $75,000 to put a pump on it, $75,000 to put a sprinkler on it? Really? You’re hung up on $1,000? Like I said, at that point, it’s like, we’re more concerned with our $5,000 irrigation motor that we put all these gadgets on to protect it, so it doesn’t burn up. You’re telling me that’s more important than your water? You’re not willing to measure it?
TT: But you are a bit of an outlier in this state [because most groundwater districts do not require meters].
Krienke: I would be naïve if I told you it wasn’t a difficult time. It was. People showed up to testify the day that we passed the rules. At that hearing, it was like, “Oh the sky is falling. This will never work. These meters won’t work. They break all the time. They’re expensive.” And so on and so forth.
TT: Hydraulic fracturing — are you all going to start permitting water wells?
Krienke: Actually, water use — there’s a little bit of a question on this, and actually it’s an attorney question. But what we think is that water use for the drilling operation and the fracking are exempt use [meaning they don’t need a permit]. But we do think we can require them to report [how much water they use]. And that’s probably going to be something that we’re probably going to be looking at in the rules — do we make a change? So far, they’ve sort of been flying under the radar.
Now, if you want to get to talking about fracking in general in our area: There’s two ways of fracking. The company that’s most prevalent, drilling in like Ochiltree County, they use about 20,000 barrels [840,000 gallons] of water per frack. It’s less than 24 hours of pumping on my irrigation well. It’s about 14 hours of pumping on a 1,000-gallon-a-minute well. So while that’s a lot of water, in the scheme of things of growing a crop, it’s less than one day of pumping time. And I pump 100 days, typically, for a crop.
The bigger companies [operating] to the south of us — they might use up to 4 to 6 million gallons, quite a bit more, [for] quite a bit larger frack jobs. But yet, in the scheme of things, as far as irrigated agriculture, which is our biggest [water] use, it doesn’t rise to the level of a concern in most people's minds. Now, it does to us, because we’re supposed to report that water. So if we’re going to report, then we need to figure out how we’re going to report. That’s why it’s on our radar screen.
TT: What do farmers in your area want out of the Legislature?
Krienke: To be left alone. [Laughs] I think in our case — first of all, our philosophy in our district [is], everyone has the right to pump, but everyone has the responsibility to conserve. And we believe that the public is behind us, and the public understands the importance of irrigated agriculture economics to the towns and the areas in our water district. So we have every right, as agriculture, to pump water to grow a crop, but only the amount that we can efficiently use to grow a crop. So we have the responsibility to conserve. We have every right to pump. We should not feel like we’re under the gun, or any bullseye or whatever. But the public does expect us to be efficient with our water use and only use what we need to economically grow a crop.
So having said all that, I think we’re in a little bit of a different area, because we don’t have the pressure of municipal use. It’s not an us versus them. And it shouldn’t be even for areas that do have municipal water pressures. So with all of that together — we really don’t have any dog in the hunt. Our senator, Sen. Kel Seliger, introduced a bill, SB 224, to take $1.6 billion to fund the state’s portion [of the water plan]. We support that. They didn’t just pull $1.6 billion out of the air. [Another Seliger bill], SB 272, [is] what most people call the metering bill. If there’s language in there that allows each individual district to figure out how they’re going to report — we think reporting is a good thing. How do we manage when we don’t know where we’re at? [Editor’s note: Seliger emphasizes that SB 224 would not require metering.]
TT: Talk about how you can remotely monitor your irrigation equipment.
Krienke: Part of our strategy with our conservation program is, is there technology out there that allows us to irrigate and make the system run more efficiently. Part of what you have is, while you’re not out in the field, problems could happen with the sprinkler and/or the pump. If the sprinkler stopped, then it’s going to sit there and water in one place. And that’s not good. We’re just kind of sitting there wasting water.
So we have this telemetry that basically tells us what the system is doing. And it can send me [an alert] that says basically, “I’m stuck, or I’m stopped. Come do something.” Through all this telemetry, the iPad or the smartphone have the same box or the same faceplate on the computer as what the panel does in the field. So you push this button, you can reverse [the watering system]. You can start it up. You can run it dry. Anything you can do in the field, you can do off your iPad.
TT: So you’re sitting in this cafe, 100 miles from the field, and you turned off your water.
And one day I was down here [in Austin] at a law conference, and the guy helping me was working on the sprinkler and trying to repair it. And he called me, didn’t know I was gone, and he said, “Can you go to the pivot and back the sprinkler up to line it back up?” And I said, “Well, I’m not there, but let me get my iPad.” So I pull it up on my iPad. So I say, “Okay, get out of the way, because I’m fixing to tell the sprinkler to back up.”