COLLEGE STATION — A state loan program to help irrigators pay for equipment that conserves water could increase its number of loans with a few changes, a joint study between Texas A&M and Texas Tech universities concludes.
The Texas Agricultural Water Conservation Loan Program provides low-interest loans to local conservation districts, which in turn provide low-interest loans to farmers to purchase and install more water-efficient irrigation systems. The program helped save more than 67,000 acre-feet of water through December 1991, with borrowers improving water-use efficiency by 31 percent, the study said.
Up to two-thirds of Texas water use is for irrigation, the study noted. The savings came through 192 loans, worth more than $6 million and used to improve irrigation efficiency on 51,000 acres.
However, the Texas Water Development Board is interested in increasing the number of loans and commissioned the survey to help it evaluate the program.
“We found out that if water districts are supportive of and promote the program, there is good acceptance. This was particularly true where the districts worked with irrigation equipment suppliers to promote it,” said Dr. Ron Lacewell, professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M and a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researcher.
“Even though the program had made $9 million in loans through August of 1993, we felt that interest in water conservation across the state has increased and more farmers would want to take advantage of the program.”
Lacewell led a group of Texas A&M researchers who surveyed farmers in South and Southwest Texas about their knowledge of and use of the seven-year-old loan program, while a group from Texas Tech surveyed farmers on the High Plains.
Because local water districts are responsible for administering and promoting the program, it was no surprise that strong support at the local level correlated with higher numbers of loans, Lacewell said.
Where the survey helps, he added, was in its findings on why some districts weren’t as supportive.
“One of the problems is that many smaller districts aren’t interested in being a banker because of the paperwork involved and because of the risks associated with any defaults on loans,” he said. “This suggests that a change in the program that allows commercial lenders to be the bankers might help broaden the program’s impact.”
Such a change requires legislative approval, Lacewell said.
The survey covered three highly varied regions of the state: in the High Plains, where irrigation water is drawn from the overtaxed Ogallala Aquifer; in the “Winter Garden” of Southwest Texas, which draws from the Edwards Aquifer; and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, which uses primarily surface water from the Rio Grande.
The number of irrigator responses and the return rates for surveys were 25 responses (23.5 percent) for the Lower Rio Grande Valley, 56 responses (13.8 percent) for the Winter Garden, and 277 responses (35.63 percent) for the High Plains. Lenders and water districts also were surveyed. Only a small number of lenders and districts received the questionnaire, Lacewell said, but their answers still were useful for examining the loan program and perhaps changing it.
The survey also found that almost $7.4 million of the $9 million loaned had been given on 288 loans to High Plains irrigators who responded to the survey. Only six loans had been made to respondents in the Winter Garden, and none had been made to respondents in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Because irrigators in the valley must “use or lose” their alloted amount of irrigation water, there is little incentive to use the loan program, Lacewell said.
“As we look to the future of the Edwards Aquifer and the Winter Garden, however, we see great potential for the loan program because of changes in the way water will be used.”
One of the survey’s surprises, Lacewell added, was a perceived need for greater technical assistance and education to improve participation in the program. Of 334 total responses to a question regarding the need for more technical assistance, 179 irrigators said participation would improve if technological assistance improved. Of 243 total responses to a question about conservation education, 179 irrigators said participation would improve if educational programs improved.