Are farmers using our drinking water supply?

We had another great question come in to the blog from a reader:

Q:  “I hear it’s supposed to be dry this summer – possibly a drought. When farmers irrigate, aren’t they using up all of our drinking water?”

A:  After the hot, dry, dusty month we’ve had, that’s a perfectly understandable question. Farmers have been firing up pivots to irrigate crops for several weeks now, and on our farm we started irrigating earlier than at any point in my memory (though this past weekend’s rains have temporarily alleviated that need). However, even though our irrigation water and drinking water generally come from the same sources, there is more than enough to keep our crops healthy and our bodies hydrated.

Much of Nebraska sits over the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest known underground source of freshwater on the planet. Because of this abundance of water, Nebraska leads the nation in irrigated acres and is home to the the biggest pivot manufacturing companies, including Valmont, T&L, Reinke, and Lindsay. The increase in yields results in increased land values and property tax revenues, higher farm incomes, and more jobs for Nebraskans. (Jefferson County member David Endorf has a great explanation of the local economic benefits of irrigation here.) So intrinsic is the value of irrigation to the state that it is commonly referred to as the “lifeblood of Nebraska”.

But none of this matters if we’re not going to have any water to drink, right? Well, that’s the really exciting thing about the innovation we’re seeing with irrigation. While Nebraska has surpassed California to lead the nation in irrigated acres, we are only fourth in volume of water applied. In 2008, Nebraska averaged less than 10 inches of irrigation water applied per acre, compared to California’s 34 inches, Arkansas’ 23 inches, and Texas’ 16 inches. (Check out this irrigation fact sheet from the University of Nebraska’s Ag Econ department for more in-depth information.) The expansion of center pivot irrigation at the expense of gravity (pipe) irrigation has greatly increased the efficiency of water use. In the Natural Resource District our farm is in, the Upper Big Blue, groundwater levels are higher than they were 50 years ago and have rebounded well from the prolonged drought of last decade. And we continue to improve at what we’re doing. On our farm, we utilize various soil moisture sensors to monitor crop water use so we can optimize irrigation timing and volume, the result of which has been substantial reductions in the amount of irrigating we do, as well as increased crop yields (particularly in soybeans). Just like we’ve done with fertilizer, chemicals, and cropland, we’re doing more with less.

So as you’re trying to keep cool during this hot summer, raise a glass of cold Nebraska groundwater and know that your local farmers are making sure that there’s plenty to go around.

— Zach and Anna Hunnicutt, Nebraska Farm Bureau Young Farmer & Rancher Committee members and Hamilton County Farm Bureau members

Keep asking great questions! Our Nebraska farmers and ranchers look forward to explaining what they do every day to produce safe food for you and your family.

Learn more about ag families in Nebraska by visiting www.nefb.org. And while there, be sure to connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

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