Water conservation not new to farmers

DSC_0021A Dec. 16 World-Herald editorial raises an opportunity to hold more discussion about the expansion of irrigated acres on Nebraska farms.

The editorial was based on a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Agricultural Economics piece that pointed out the growing trend of dryland farm acres being converted to irrigated acres and the possibility that sometime down the road we’ll have more irrigated than dryland acres in our state.

The editorial rightly points out the importance of Nebraskans embracing sound water conservation ideas, but it may have led some readers to believe that more irrigated acres means more water use.

While it would be easy to jump to that conclusion, that thinking misses out on one very important point: Nebraska farmers have been working to get better at conserving water using new practices and new technologies. The proof is in the numbers.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the number of irrigated acres in Nebraska increased from 7.8 million in 2000 to 8.3 million in 2005. (The 2010 data from the USGS are expected sometime in late 2014.) During that same timeframe, the amount of irrigation water used in Nebraska actually declined from 9.8 million acre-feet per year in 2000 to 9.4 million acre-feet per year in 2005.

How is it possible to have more irrigated acres but use less water? Many farmers have aggressively worked to better manage how water is used on the farm. From the equipment used to the seeds put in the soil, the goal for most is to get more out of each drop of water.

Today, technology and new conservation practices are allowing farmers to monitor applications and collect data to aid in making timely decisions about when and where to apply water to help ensure they are conserving and enhancing efficiency.

Farmers now have the ability to do a better job of measuring their crops’ water use, water needs and keep tabs on soil moisture content. Many farmers are on the path of converting from gravity irrigation systems to center-pivot irrigation systems that enhance efficiency. In some cases, farmers are using subsoil irrigation systems that put water directly into the crop’s root zone.

New technologies in seed varieties that use less water, developed through research at land-grant universities and private companies, also are making their way into Nebraska crop fields. Changes in tillage practices, cropping rotations and adjusting plant populations are other tools used to save water. It’s the combination of all of these that allows us to help raise food using less water.

These changes are being made to not only help us be better farmers but because of a belief that we have an obligation and responsibility for preserving water resources for the next generations — not just those that live on the farm.

Despite our efforts, we can’t escape the fact that raising food requires water. We all need to eat. And in Nebraska, irrigation has implications beyond the dinner plate. A Nebraska Farm Bureau-funded study released earlier this year showed that irrigation contributes $11 billion to Nebraska’s economy. It also creates more than 30,000 Nebraska jobs, which, if all were located in one county, would be Nebraska’s 10th largest.

The connection among irrigation, food production, jobs and Nebraska’s broader economy is the reason we believe so strongly that managing our water resources is a statewide issue.

Innovations and improvements in water conservation will continue on the farm, but we all share some responsibility in helping ensure we have sound long-term water policy. This includes developing the water programs, projects and activities needed to make sure water continues to be available to all of Nebraska’s water users in the future.

–Steve Nelson, farmer of Axtell, Neb.

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