Irrigation systems ‘couldn’t keep up.’ 2022 Drought dealt supply problems for water managers

Oct. 28, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Pasture ground road near this Scottsbluff, Nebraska road is very dry amid the latest drought
Pasture ground road near this Scottsbluff, Nebraska, road is dry amid the ongoing drought. (Photo by Tiffany Johanson, Nebraska Public Media)

As the drought continues its extended stay in southwestern and northeastern Nebraska, water managers are battening down the hatches ahead of what could be another dry winter in the state.

Imperial is one of the driest corners of the state. Nate Jenkins, with the Upper Republican Natural Resource District, said the lack of rainfall there this year will set farmers and ranchers further behind heading into the winter.

Jenkins said NRD board members in Perkins, Chase and Dundy counties are considering taking more steps to protect the amount of water they pull from the Ogallala aquifer.

“A lot of those discussions are centered around whether or not they need to do so to help preserve the aquifer,” Jenkins said.

One step the board could take within the next month is to reduce the amount of water given to farmers and ranchers. Irrigators in the Upper Republican NRD are allowed 65-acre inches of water every five years. When the new interval starts in January, that amount could be trimmed.

It’s a decision that’s weighing heavily on the NRD. Jenkins said reducing water allocations would be a difficult move, especially because of the harm farmers and ranchers suffered already this year.

“By and large, the biggest impact has been economic,” Jenkins said. Farmers were hit with scorching hot weather, wildfires and inflated agriculture costs.

“Even irrigated yields – I know we’re going to be lower this year. In addition to it being really, really dry, it was really windy,” Jenkins said. “A lot of those irrigation systems simply couldn’t keep up with the evapotranspiration of corn crops, primarily.”

Jenkins said Imperial’s average rainfall is around 15 inches. This year, the southwestern town received just over 9 inches.

Several natural resource district managers said they felt lucky in their situation compared to water managers who are overseeing and allocating surface water.

Farmers desperate for help

Brad Edgerton is one of the people dealing with low reservoir levels and dried-up canals. He manages the Frenchman-Cambridge Irrigation District in southwest Nebraska.

“It’s been a struggle. We delivered basically all the water that we possibly could have allocated,” Edgerton said. “We have a little bit of water leftover in the reservoirs carrying over to next year, but the streams in the area have been depleted pretty severely.”

Edgerton oversees three federal reservoirs: Swanson, Hugh Butler and Harry Strunk. Hugh Butler Lake struggled to send water through the Red Willow Canal this year, so Edgerton made a rare plea to the Bureau of Reclamation, which sets the water allotments, to release more water than initially contracted.

“We had crops that were doing pretty decent, and we didn’t want to just shut them off,” Edgerton said. “We tried to help the producers produce the best crop they could with what we had.”

During a summer filled with anxious farmers and wildfires, Edgerton also had to field a few cases of stolen water. In August, Edgerton reported someone had tampered with a dam connected to the Cambridge Canal. Investigators were never able to find who might have let 16 million gallons slip out into the Republican River.

Edgerton also had to report a farmer this summer for illegally taking water out of the Red Willow Canal.

“It was a dryland field burning up, and you can see where the water that he tapped into ended up going on the field, because that corn was nice and green,” he said.

With some canals now running dry and reservoirs thinning out, the irrigation manager hopes next year won’t bring as many challenges.

“We’re going to need some help from Mother Nature between now and next irrigation season to get some recovery in these reservoirs.”

Urban areas preparing for more dry years ahead

In eastern Nebraska, rain has also been scarce, but Lincoln’s superintendent of water management, Steve Owen, said water use is down 13% compared to the record drought year of 2012. He points to lower consumption as the reason why the city didn’t have to implement water restrictions this year.

“That’s a telling tale of our customers being aware of the importance of water conservation. I think we're seeing that especially with outside water use. And that's where the majority, probably 50% or more, of water goes on a summer day,” Owen said.

The water manager also credited its two newer wells – acquired after the 2012 drought – with strengthening the city’s supply. The Platte River recharges Lincoln’s 44 wells that sit near Ashland.

The record summer drought in 2012 was the last time Lincoln had to impose water restrictions. Residents within the city used around 7 billion gallons of water between June and September in 2012. This year, usage was down to around 6.5 billion gallons during the same months, despite the city adding nearly 30,000 more residents.

Despite usage being down, the city is planning for years down the road, when droughts could tighten the strain on urban areas.

“It’s not an infinite supply of water, especially if you’re following what’s happening out west – in the Colorado River Basin and Lake Mead and Lake Powell,” Owen said.

Owen said the city is still looking to further bolster its water supply for the coming years. The city has plans to solidify a second water source, aside from its wellfield.

“It’s not because we’re running out of water. It’s because of good planning,” Owen said. “Going down the road, if we have another year like we had this year, we might begin talking a little more about water restrictions.”