A new report from agriculture economists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln includes a graph that shows something important about Nebraska’s future.
It shows that in 2003, Nebraska’s dryland farm area totaled 11.7 million acres, far surpassing the state’s 7.8 million irrigated acres.
But in the years since, the lines have started on a path to converge. The total number of dryland acres has been sliding downward while the number of irrigated acres is sharply up, now exceeding 9 million acres.
If the trend continues, the NU report says, the number of irrigated farm acres in Nebraska could surpass the dryland total in less than a decade.
The findings are in line with a U.S. Department of Agriculture, which reports, “From 2002 to 2007, irrigated acres increased by nearly 1.3 million acres across the U.S., with Nebraska accounting for nearly a million additional acres.”
The largest gains have been in Nebraska counties with an already large irrigation presence: Antelope in the northeast; Holt on the edge of the Sand Hills; Boone, Platte, Merrick and York in the east; and Lincoln in the west central.
Irrigation per se isn’t bad, and crop production certainly isn’t. The point is that the dramatic increase in irrigated acres means Nebraska needs to put even greater focus on efficient water use.
The UNL report outlines major questions:
>> “Can we realistically expand irrigation acreage an additional 10 percent in the next 10 years and at the same time meet instream flow requirements?”
>> “Will policy limiting pumping rates of existing irrigation wells, already in place across much of western Nebraska, need to be implemented in the eastern areas of the state?”
>> “What are the consequences of possible extended periods of drought across the state that force significant increases in groundwater pumping rates to an ever-increasing cropland acreage dependent on irrigation?”
There are positive ways forward. “From 1984 to 2008,” the USDA says, “ total irrigated farmland in the West increased by 2.1 million acres, while water applied declined by nearly 100,000 acre-feet.” (The department’s definition of “West” includes Nebraska.)
A paper published by University of Nebraska Extension in 2012 cites three sets of factors that provide “considerable opportunities to improve water productivity”:
>> Earlier planting dates, higher plant density and longer hybrid maturity.
>> Pivot irrigation rather than gravity systems, plus adjustments in irrigation schedule.
>> Soybean-corn rotation instead of continuous corn, using conservation tillage.
The report, authored by three UNL professors and two Extension educators, concluded: “Recent studies conducted in high-yielding irrigated corn fields in eastern and central Nebraska indicate it is possible to reduce irrigation water amounts with minimum yield penalty.”
NU’s Water for Food Institute is pioneering a variety of techniques on this issue.
Water stewardship in farm country is an age-old issue. As irrigated acres continue to increase and the lines on the NU graph continue to converge, Nebraska’s embrace of sound water conservation ideas is more important than ever.