Nebraska’s history is full of dedicated farmers who fought hardships and draught to transform the desert land into farms. Irrigation has helped Nebraska become a leading agricultural state, but the future of Nebraska and its farmers depends on the conservation of the state’s finite resource, water.
Twenty percent of the irrigated farmland in the United States depends on the Ogallala Aquifer. According to Esquire, “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.
Water research is necessary to invent and implement new ways of conserving water. 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. A water-financing group, led by Don Nelson, 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 need to use the irrigation methods with the least amount of water waste. Pipe and ridges, also called flood irrigating uses the most water. Pivots use even less water, but allow 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. The method of irrigation that the Nebraska Resource Districts (NRD) need to help all farmers changeover to is drip irrigation, where 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. The substantial cost makes it unlikely that farmers will changeover on their own. The NRD needs to provide some sort of assistance or tax break to help farmers install drip irrigation.
Mandating watermark sensors would also help conserve water by making sure that the water applied is the correct amount that the crops need. The electrical probes get stuck in the ground to measure water at 1-4 foot depths. Farmers use an equation and the mark reading to determine when they need to irrigate again. The topsoil 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.
According to Cornell News, 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. Rotating crops allows farmers to plant over previous crops, without disking. Crop rotation also helps replace nutrients into the soil, as beans create nitrogen, while corn uses it.
The future of Nebraska agricultural depends on the cooperation between the NRD and Nebraska farmers to make the transition to water-saving irrigation methods and technology, which will help protect the state’s vital water resource and the lives of the people in this great state.