Maximizing Water for Agriculture in Nebraska

Oct. 24, 2013, 6:30 a.m. ·

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Nebraska leads the nation in the number of irrigated acres. The Platte River is one of the main sources of that irrigation water. Over time, those demands have increased. And farmers, water managers and seed companies are becoming more water efficient. For our in-depth report “Water Demands on the Platte,” NET News looked at a few of the ways Nebraskans are maximizing water for agriculture.

Scott Ford’s center pivot in his south-central Nebraska field can draw water from the Platte River. But this year, the third-generation corn and soybean producer said he relied more on pumping groundwater.

“Last year, three-quarters of the water through that pivot was surface water. This year, with allocations, and continued drought, it was the other way around,” Ford said.

Those allocations were reductions in Platte River water from Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District.

“2014 will be the seventh out of the last 10 years we’ve had to reduce deliveries to our customers. Before that we’d never done that in history of district,” said David Ford, Central's Irrigation Division manager, who's also Scott's uncle.

The drought, coupled with the last decade’s record low water levels at Lake McConaughy, the state’s biggest water storage reservoir, forced the reductions. Next year Central’s producers will only get half of what their contracts allow.

“We’re seeing water resources being developed above Lake McConaughy and inflows are simply not getting back to the river,” David Ford said.

Thousands of new groundwater wells have been drilled above the reservoir in the last 70 years. And farmers have become more efficient: That means less water is wasted upstream from the Lake. But it also means less water runs off fields back into the Platte and Lake McConaughy. So farmers downstream have had to cut back. Central’s Ford said his customers used less water in 2012 than they did 20 years ago.

This graph shows how much water flows into Lake McConaughy have dropped in the last 70 years.

(Graph courtesy of Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District)

“A lot of our producers look at water as an input. You measure fertilizer you apply, the number of seeds per acre. Water is an input as well. You need to make sure you’re making most of that water,” David Ford said.

Because that water costs money. As a child, farmer Scott Ford remembers seeing full ditches along road sides, and furrows flowing with water. Nowadays, he says ag producers conserve much more, “You’re still going to need water to produce corn or soybeans. That’s plain and simple. People out here want to become more efficient. We want to do our jobs better. And that means produce more, off less,” Scott Ford said.

Ford said his dual groundwater and surface water pivot pump is one way to be flexible—especially as farmers increasingly rely on the aquifer. Widespread use of center pivots has improved water efficiency, as have soil moisture sensors that let producers know how much water crops need. Another tool is called T-tape. It delivers water directly to crop roots through a series of underground tubes. Ford said it’s gaining popularity even though it costs two to three times more than a center pivot.

“Using the T-tape, we can be almost nearly 100 percent efficient. The biggest barrier is it’s very costly. But as we see water become more crucial, I think you’ll see more and more acres go to that kind of technology too,” Scott Ford said.

More efficient irrigation is one way to maximize water for agriculture, though it can mean less groundwater recharge. Another is engineering the crop itself.

Chandler Mazour leads a tram tour at the Monsanto Water Utilization Learning Center in Gothenburg, a 300-acre research farm in central Nebraska. Monsanto’s experimenting with hybrids that need less water, and are genetically modified to resist pests. They’re also using herbicides and no-till practices. Mazour shows off one such plot:

A test plot at Monsanto's research farm in central Nebraska. The Monsanto staff progressively used different hybrid crops, herbicides and no-till practices to demostrate their effectiveness. This is a photo of the first row, where none of those things were used. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

“Where we let the weeds get away we raised six bushels of corn. Last year when we did everything right and we raised 128 bushel corn, we had more soil moisture than where we did everything wrong,” Mazour said.

Crop genetics and technology advances are nothing new to Nebraska agricultural producers. Mazour said if farmers can grow more crops per drop they’ll avoid the need to cut back on water used for agriculture.

“If we can continue increasing production with the same water use we have today, we would be quite successful,” Mazour said. “Because it’s about food production. That’s what we turn the water into.”

But not everyone sees it that way. Mike Jess has been involved in Nebraska water affairs for most of his career, including serving as director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources. He says water demands on the Platte River in western Nebraska already exceed supplies.

“That has prompted the state Department of Natural Resources and a number of natural resource districts to embark on programs to bring consumption back to native supplies,” Jess said.

That means retiring water uses, including irrigation. Some natural resource districts are funneling that water into pits to filter back down to the aquifer. Jess said reducing water demands costs money, and can be challenging, especially when there are other needs from municipalities, wildlife and recreation.

“Traditionally there was a bit of tension among environmental community and traditional water consumers. I think two sides, in the past decade or so, have come to realize they need to work together and are indeed working together,” Jess said.

Nebraska will continue to deal with these tensions and challenges of water use in the years to come, especially in the face of a changing climate, said Jess. “The hope is that there will be adequate water supplies for all the uses.”

A time-lapse video of a crop field in the central Platte valley.

(Video courtesy of the Platte Basin Timelapse project)

Editor's Note: Funding for NET News’ “Water Demands on the Platte” is provided by “Penn State Public Media” and its “Water Blues – Green Solutions” local reporting initiative.