Ogallala Aquifer: Nebraska Not Immune to Sustainability Issues
Editors’ note: DTN reporters this summer examined how farmers and states are managing groundwater resources from the Ogallala aquifer. The series reports on challenges in Texas, Kansas and Nebraska, as well as how the irrigation business is expanding. The series runs into next week.
Brian Gould hopes it rains on his farm near Laurel, Neb.
He saw what happens when moisture is limited in the northeastern part of the state. Gould was able to irrigate, but drought affected levels in irrigation and domestic wells across his region last year.
“We didn’t have any wells dry up, but I know others who did have house wells go dry,” Gould told DTN. “We even know of a neighbor who had his pivot shutting off. It turns out it was another neighbor shutting it off because his home well was running dry.”
Nebraska sits upon the most expansive section of the Ogallala aquifer, the underwater source which runs roughly 900 miles from the Texas Panhandle to the Sandhills of Nebraska.
But Nebraska has not been immune to sustainability issues with lowering aquifer levels in some areas, thanks to drought.
NATURAL RESOURCE DISTRICTS HELP CONSERVE WATER
While Nebraska has the deepest, widest area of the Ogallala, its farmers in some regions face more water restrictions than farmers in other High Plains states. The state created 23 Natural Resource Districts in 1972 based on river basin boundaries which allow the boards of directors to manage the entire watershed.
Nebraska’s NRDs share a common set of programs and responsibilities, but each district sets its own plans on how to serve local needs, said Dean Edson, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Resource Districts.
Drought puts pressure on the Ogallala and groundwater levels, especially in specific areas of the state. Yet, unlike in Texas and Kansas, the Ogallala in Nebraska shows quick recharge. Despite drought stress, the state’s level of the aquifer is at irrigation pre-development levels, Edson noted.
Edson’s claim is backed up by the United States Geological Survey which looked at aquifer water level changes from predevelopment of irrigation to 1980 and from 2000 to 2011.
While other states in the Ogallala are seeing up to a 39-foot loss in the aquifer water level, Nebraska has seen slight decreases and increases. In 2011, the state actually saw a slight increase, up 0.2 foot, according to USGS.
“Several factors, including the depth of the aquifer here, allocation of so many inches for irrigation in some NRD districts, and sustainable farming practices have allowed us to maintain the level of the aquifer,” he said.
But Nebraska also has the Platte River system coming off the melting snowpack from the Rocky Mountains and flowing across the state.
“Nebraska is fortunate in two ways. One, having so much water, but second, you get out in west Nebraska, you have a fairly large developed river network that has conductivity with the aquifer,” said David Brauer, manager of the Ogallala Aquifer Program for USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.
Nebraska is also able to keep the aquifer levels higher because state law says groundwater belongs to the state, while in other states groundwater ownership belongs to the landowner. This small but important point allowed Nebraska to manage water more precisely, Edson said.
FARMERS FACE DIFFERENT WATER ISSUES
Gould farms in the Lower Elkhorn NRD, which restricts farmers in some areas of the district to 12 inches during the growing season. Also, the NRD board put a moratorium on drilling new wells recently for the entire district.
Gould’s farm is on the edge of the Ogallala, as well as other smaller aquifers. With different aquifers in the region, some areas have good water sources for irrigation while others don’t.
“We have wells which pump 600 to 850 gallons per minute and we have wells which only pump 400,” said Gould, who uses a 12-hours-on and 12-hours-off program for recharge with some of his wells.
Across Nebraska in the south-central part of the state, Joel Grams farms near Upland in Franklin County. A majority of the land he farms is in the Lower Republican NRD. As with Gould, Grams faces restrictions on irrigation water.
“We have 45 inches for five years, which comes out to 9 inches a year,” said Grams, who is also president of the Nebraska Corn Growers Association. “You can shift from year to year, so I actually have 10.5 inches to use this year.”
The Lower Republican NRD has restrictions due to demands of a compact with Kansas over water flows of the Republican River between the two states. Years of litigation forced NRDs along the Republican River to establish more stringent controls.
Grams said he has already used 5 inches of his allotment for the 2013 growing season. Hopefully the last 5.5 inches will allow his corn and soybean crops to finish the growing season with good yields.
Farther to the northwest, Ryan Overleese works as an agronomist for Cornhusker Agronomics Inc., his family-owned agricultural sales/service company located near Axtell in the Platte River valley. The company consults about crops in Kearney, Phelps, Buffalo, Franklin and Harlan counties, which cover two NRDs.
“At this time, most of our area of the Platte River valley does not have allocations restricting the amount of irrigation water that can be applied,” Overleese said.
While the NRDs were organized to provide watersheds the management flexibility to conserve resources, this type of set-up also presents its own issues.
Gould points out a neighbor less than a mile north of him can drill a well while Gould cannot, since both farms are in different NRDs. Gould is not angry at his neighbor for being able to continue to drill. However, he said it doesn’t make sense that NRDs are focusing in on smaller areas rather than trying to solve water issues as a whole.
Grams farms land in two different NRDs — one limits his irrigation water, the other doesn’t.
“Conserving water is very important and we shouldn’t take it for granted we have this large source of water,” he said. “I just think everyone should be conserving water.”
CHANGES IN CULTURAL PRACTICES, TECHNOLOGIES
The role of cultural practices can conserve irrigation water. Grams no-tills his fields to keep as much moisture in the soil as he can. He also rotates corn and soybeans on his irrigated acres to stretch his limited water. In the past, many farmers would plant corn-on-corn, which uses more water.
Federal and state governments also aid farmers in conserving water. Nebraska is part of the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative administrated through USDA. Conservation is carried out using Natural Resources Conservation Service funds through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program.
Nebraska NRCS works with producers to influence change from flood/furrow irrigation to higher-efficiency irrigation systems, said Brad Soncksen, assistant state conservationist for programs for the Nebraska NRCS.
“The gain for the resource is we will pump less water from the aquifer and from a water quality standpoint, we can manage the nutrients, as far as run-off and leaching, a lot better with higher-efficient systems such as center pivot,” Soncksen said. “We also have payments for sub-surface drip irrigation systems, which takes it to the next level of reducing the amount of water which we need to pump from the aquifer and reduce evapotranspiration rates.”
Soncksen added Nebraska farmers who receive an EQIP payment for irrigation are required to start keeping track of how much rainfall they have received and how much water they pump. Farmers monitor their systems to provide NRCS with records to show they are managing efficiently.
While Nebraska conserves water, at what level the Ogallala Aquifer is maintained in the future here could depend on the weather and how much moisture the state receives. If the state receives steady rains, the aquifer will remained charged. Along with conservation practices in place, irrigation will be available for farmers, according to those involved with irrigation.
But what happens to the aquifer in a worst-case scenario, such as the state seeing multiple-year droughts in the future?
Gould believes farmers in his area will consider putting farms back in the Conservation Reserve Program and shifting to a corn-soybean crop rotation. Much of the irrigated ground in his area is in continuous corn now.
“It could be we move to planting different crops like small grains if it were to stay dry,” Gould said. “There could be issues with towns running out of water and this would pit townsfolk against farmers for water.”
Gould is hopeful the future is not this grim.
“If it would rain once in a while, that would solve a lot of these issues,” he said.
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