Here is a long draft of my state issue editorial concerning water conservation, farmers, and the NRD:
Whether it is from rivers, rain, or the Ogallala Aquifer, Nebraska’s future and the future of farmers depends on water, so Nebraska farmers need to take responsibility and do their part to conserve this finite resource.
The main source of water for the Midwest is the Ogallala Aquifer, a subsystem of the High Plains Aquifer. According to Esquire, “The system covers 174,000 square miles beneath eight different state, ranging from North Dakota to Texas and from Nebraska to parts of New Mexico.” Twenty percent of the irrigated farmland in the United States depends on this water. Damage to it would change “the lives of the people who depend on it, their personal economies, the overall national economy, and what we can grow to feed ourselves.” The water level is already dangerously low and is easy to empty, but not refill.
The importance of conserving this vital water resource seems obvious. The question is how can this be done? The NRD creates the regulations for their own districts. Each district is regulated differently because each region is fundamentally different in the rivers that run through them, the water levels, the shape of the farmland, and even the climate. A regulation that protects or benefits one region, might not work the same way for the others.
The NRD is working to increase water conservation by imposing water allocations on irrigators. Some regions are already required to have meters on their wells. Those regions require farmers to pay for the amount of water used and also restrict the amount of inches per acre that is allowed. Other districts require that if farmers do have meters on their wells, which most farmers do, that they report their usage. If all regions would be required to use meters, then farmers could be taxed according to their water usage. In addition to reporting water usage, no regions should approve any new farmland for irrigation.
Water research is extremely important. According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Water Center, new technology and new methods are being used to help irrigators cut back on water usage without reduction in crop yields. –LJS Don Nelson led a group of Nebraskans for an informal discussion on water financing needs a year ago. The group estimated that “the state would need about $60 million annually for water science and technology research, to help protect water quality, to restore water infrastructure and to build new projects.” –NE Farmer. Farmers pay a checkoff tax that gives so many cents out of every bushel of grain sold to research. This checkoff tax has benefited farmers with new technology, like the biodiesel from soybeans. The checkoff taxes could be used to benefit water research and be increased as necessary.
Mandating water mark sensors would also help conserve water by making sure the water applied to fields matches the amount of water that the crop needs. The sensors are electrical probes that get stuck in the ground to measure water at 1-3 foot depths. Farmers use an equation and the mark reading to determine when they need to irrigate again. The top soil might appear dry, but the readings measure the subsoil, which is what’s important. This is a cost-share program through the NRD, which runs approximately $600 per field. –Irrigation Monitoring System
Farmers can irrigate their crops in three different ways. Pipe and ridges, also called flood irrigating uses the most water. Pivots use less water than flood irrigation, but allows for land that couldn’t be irrigated by pipe to still be irrigated. So even though it saves water, pivots allow more fields to be irrigated. Pivots can’t replace flood irrigation because they don’t work on every shape of field and are expensive, costing around $75,000. One final method of irrigation is drip irrigation. Hoses are placed 18 inches underground in a grid pattern. This method uses the least amount of water because it waters the subsoil instead of the top, where evaporation occurs. It works especially well on odd shaped fields, but costs around $1,200 per acre. This form of irrigation is very beneficial to conserving water and will probably become increasingly popular in the future. Right now because of its cost it is not widely used and cannot be mandated.
Another way to protect the soil and conserve water is to prohibit disking and shredding and mandate crop rotation. Disking and shredding dry out and damage the soil. By rotating crops you can just plant right over, without disking. Beans also create nitrogen, while corn uses it. So crop rotation helps replace nutrients into the soil. –Cornell News
Water meters and taxes according to water usage, along with mandatory water mark sensors and crop rotation, prohibited disking, and increased checkoff taxes for water research would not only help conserve water, but also benefit farmers in the long run.