Water demands forcing farmers to become more efficient

Dec 11, 2013

Farmers all over the Midwest are working to be more efficient in their water usage as supplies in many areas run tight.
Credit Ariana Brocious / Harvest Public Media

Scott Ford’s center pivot irrigation system 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,” Ford said. “This year, with allocations and continued drought, it was the other way around.”

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,” said David Ford, Central's Irrigation Division manager, who also happens to be Scott's uncle. “Before that we’d never done that in history of district.”

Across the Midwest, farmers like Scott Ford are taking a hard look at their water usage. In Nebraska, which leads the nation in the number of irrigated acres, farmers have had to become more efficient as water grows scarcer.

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 for Central Irrigation’s customers. Next year, the utility’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 Irrigation’s David Ford said his customers used less water in 2012 than they did 20 years ago.

“A lot of our producers look at water as an input,” he said. “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.

Water, of course, 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,” Scott Ford said. “People out here want to become more efficient. We want to do our jobs better. And that means produce more off less.”

Ford said his dual groundwater and surface water pivot pump is one way to be flexible—especially as farmers in his neighborhood 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.

Farmers are also using what’s 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,” he said. “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.”

Similar water use issues are spurring innovation in Kansas, too. In 2011 and 2012, severe drought forced the state of Kansas to restrict surface water rights on more than 500 users. In those dry years, some irrigators even borrowed water against their allocations from the following year. 

This year, timely rains helped significantly with surface water. Even still, some irrigators in northwest Kansas are planning to reduce their use by nearly 20 percent in the next five years. 

Mike Jess, former director of the Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources, hopes these dry years will spur fundamental change. 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 the environmental community and traditional water consumers,” Jess said. “I think the two sides, in the past decade or so, have come to realize they need to work together and are indeed working together.”

Midwestern farmers 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.

“The hope is that there will be adequate water supplies for all the uses,” Jess said.

This story was initially published by NET Nebraska as part of its series “Water Demands on the Platte.”

This story originally aired as part of Business Beat, a weekly program about business and economics in mid-Missouri.