Farmers Role in Conserving Water (State Editorial Rough Draft)

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. 

Water’s finite supply should be valued

There are many people out there who will say global warming is a bunch of BS, but it’s happening and our water sources are depleting.  “Everyone can see the need for roads, but can you sell the need for water?” Nebraska Sen. Mark Christensen asked.  “Most people aren’t aware of the importance of water in this state.” –NE Farmer

Water is used for everything from drinking, cooking, and bathing to recreational activities, farming, transportation, energy, and a part of wildlife habitats, yet it’s taken for granted. Water conservation is especially important in states like Nebraska, where many people make their living farming.  In addition, “eighty percent of Nebraskans drink from groundwater supplies that are so free of contamination that no treatment is necessary.”  –Lincoln Journal Star

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.”  Nebraska depends on the water from the Ogallala Aquifer.  Right now the aquifer is facing two problems, running dry and being contaminated by the Keystone Pipline. 

“Make no mistake.  You screw with the Ogallala Aquifer and you screw with this nation’s heartbeat.”  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.” –Esquire  The water level is already dangerously low and is easy to empty, but not refill. 

The recent drought has increased tension and brought about conflicts between irrigators and domestic well users.  According to the Lincoln Journal Star, “In order to resolve the conflicts, the NRD spent more than $100,000 to help pay for deepening wells or taking other measure so that residents in the area could have water to drink, shower, take baths and wash clothes.”  The expense of deepening a well can cost more than $20,000.  The NRD is working to increase water conservation by imposing water allocations on irrigators.  Flow meters will record water usage and all irrigators will be required to install them.  In addition to that, the NRD will not approve any new farmland for irrigation.

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

Land west of 180 degrees in Nebraska is considered too dry for farming without irrigation.  “The ‘flash drought’ that hit last summer reminded Nebraskans in the eastern part of the state that they cannot take water for granted.  That’s a relatively rare occurrence in a state with a plentiful supply of groundwater.” –LJS

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

Whether it be from rivers, rain, or the Ogallala Aquifer, Nebraska’s future and the future of farmers depends on water.

Water Fights

In the Midwest I think people pray for rain more than they pray for world peace.  Water is an integral part of our lives.  It’s management and conservation is very important, which is why there are laws and regulations on waterways, but as we are faced with droughts and floods, people are looking at altering those regulations.  

In September, barge operators, farmers and ranchers, flood-management specialists, environmentalists, and federal, state, and local governments met to begin America’s Great Watershed Initiative.  The goal of this group is to reach an agreement about the most scientifically sound ways to manage the network of waterways involving the Mississippi River.

The article by Bloomberg, “To Ease Drought on the Mississippi, Look Upstream,” looks at the aspects of flood control and state cooperation for the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.  It says a quick way to raise the level of the Mississippi River is to release more water from the dams on the Missouri.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea or not, “because federal law prohibits manipulating the Missouri in any way that’s expressly meant to help the Mississippi.”  According to the article, the Mississippi River covers a million square miles across 31 states and two Canadian provinces.  It’s used for navigation, electricity, recreation, consumption, agriculture, and hydraulic fracturing, so it’s regulation is incredibly important. 

Arguments for manipulating the Missouri River include barges who need the channel of the Mississippi River to be at least 9 feet deep to operate, farmers who need water to grow their crops and environmentalists who push to maintain the habitats of fish, birds, and other wildlife.  This could be possible if the Mississippi basin is treated as a whole.  “The Flood Control Act of 1944, that governs the Missouri, requires that, in operating the series of dams on the upper Missouri, the Army Corps of Engineers should consider eight interests — in addition to flood control, these are water supply and quality, irrigation, hydropower, navigation, fish and wildlife protection, and recreation.  They specifically do not include anything to do with the Mississippi.”  

The Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Platte Rivers, along with the Red River of the South are all substantial feeder rivers for the Mississippi.  The manipulation of one river to benefit the Mississippi, may help the Mississippi River, but could potentially harm other regions depending on the feeder river’s water.  “In 2009, lawmakers authorized $25 million study to assess whether any changes should be made to the management of the Missouri, but soon after the study was started Congress declined to allocate most of the money for it.”  With climate changes and the risk of extreme droughts and floods, you can bet the management of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers will be looked at further and most likely become a battle of the states.

Influence of Home – Farming in Nebraska

It doesn’t matter where we are going, we are influence by where we come from.  I grew up on a family farm where irrigating and harvest were considered more of a hobby than actual work.  Home to me is the farm.  It’s where I learned the importance of family, hard work, and faith.

My dad gives my brother, two cousins, and I a ride on the combine during harvest time.

My dad gives my brother, two cousins, and I a ride on the combine during harvest time.

I grew up within 10 miles from both of my grandparents and even some of my great grandparents.  Farm work was something we all did together.  I learned how to drive helping lay out pipe and could drive a tractor before I had my driver’s license.  I have memories playing in the corn, throwing a football with my grandpa while waiting for the truck to unload, trips to the elevator, making lunch to bring to the field, walking on the pipe while irrigating and accidentally falling into the stream of water, getting all muddy, and my favorite-riding in the combine with my dad.

Of course not every memory is a great one.  When we did hay there were some nights were we would be drug to the field at midnight trying to get the bales picked up before it rained, somedays the air conditioner in the tractor wouldn’t work, and the worst of the problems – Nebraska weather.  I live right along the Little Blue River and have seen it flood.  I’ve seen crops destroyed from hail and I’ve helped fix pipe that were banged up from tornados.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve watched farmers’ crops die from drought.  Whether it was dry land crops that died from lack of rain or irrigated crops that died because of water regulations.

In the Midwest region of the United States, we struggle with maintaining our water sources.  Our rivers seem to flood or run dry more often than they stay at a consistent level.  Laws and regulations are in place to try to help control these waterways, but are they doing more harm than good?  This issue hits close to home and is something I intend to look at in depth.