Study: Irrigation saved billions in Nebraska

2013-07-24T05:50:00Z 2015-01-22T13:48:08Z Study: Irrigation saved billions in NebraskaBy ART HOVEY / Lincoln Journal Star
July 24, 2013 5:50 am  • 

A study unveiled Tuesday by the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation shows the state’s ability to irrigate during the 2012 drought was worth $11 billion in agricultural output.

That's what would have been lost had crop producers been unable to capitalize on living in the most heavily irrigated state, Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson said.

Work done for the Farm Bureau by Des Moines-based Decision Innovation Solutions also pointed to 31,000 jobs and $5.5 billion worth of value-added efforts that would have been put at risk without irrigation.

“We felt it was very important to revisit this topic to make sure we had a solid grasp on what irrigation means to all Nebraskans,” Nelson said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

Perhaps the most remarkable indication of the state’s irrigation success is the gap between irrigated yields and unirrigated yields for corn. The Lincoln office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) confirmed Tuesday that 2012 irrigated yields averaged 190.1 bushels, while unirrigated yields were at 58.5 bushels, not counting acres chopped for silage or abandoned because of drought.

Scott Keller of the Lincoln NASS office said the yield spread between irrigated and non-irrigated was the biggest of the irrigated era.

While Farm Bureau officials focused on the positives of irrigation, public reaction in Lincoln and other non-agricultural settings might have become a negative if the drought hadn’t loosened its grip.

Recent weather has drifted back toward the dry side, but ample rain in April and May in eastern Nebraska eased drought tensions.

Lincoln was among the cities under mandatory water restriction last year and the capacity of its wellfields along the Platte River near Ashland was being depleted by heavy irrigation pumping.

Near Norfolk, some domestic wells went dry because of heavy water use by farmers.

Nelson conceded that water sustainability and economic sustainability must be taken into account during dry times.

“What we really have to look for is a balance sometimes between the different uses of water,” he said.

Dave Aiken, a water law specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the timing of the Farm Bureau results might be “serendipitous. But,” added Aiken, “we’re starting on a water funding study, we’ve got last year’s drought, and this year is shaping up to be almost as severe as last year.”

A task force set up by the Legislature to look at funding needs to preserve the water supply met for the first time last week.

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