The count on new irrigation wells in Nebraska surged past the 1,000 mark for the first time in seven years in 2012, according to preliminary numbers provided by the Department of Natural Resources earlier this week.
The 1,105 new wells were the most registered with the state since 2005. The 2012 total was more than double the number added in 2009 or 2010 and more than 350 more than 2011.
An accompanying surge in prices for corn and soybeans is one likely cause. A blistering drought that settled over Nebraska and surrounding states last summer is another, said Dave Aiken, an agriculture and water law specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“It’s a combination of drought and record commodity prices,” Aiken said Thursday. “If corn was $2 or $3 a bushel, we wouldn’t see as many wells, despite the drought.”
A brisk well-drilling pace underscores the importance of irrigation in the nation’s leading irrigating state, especially when precipitation levels fall far below normal.
But increasing reliance on both surface and groundwater to make up the difference also tests the ability to meet cropping needs without threatening the supply of water for municipal and industrial purposes, as well as household wells in rural areas.
River basins in much of the central and western parts of Nebraska already are designated as fully or over-appropriated under the workings of a 2004 state law meant to balance supply with demand.
More recently, the leadership of the Norfolk-based Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District decided to pay part of the 2012 cost that more than 100 rural acreage owners faced when their household wells went dry.
A check of monitoring wells there and in the state’s 22 other NRDs in the next few weeks should show how much groundwater levels have dropped from a year ago and whether additional conservation measures, including limiting how much irrigators can pump, might be needed.
The Lower Elkhorn imposed its own moratorium on drilling new wells districtwide last year.
Heavy groundwater pumping and more wells close to rivers and streams further diminish surface flows in dry years.
That situation played out in the Lincoln area in 2012. The Platte channel was virtually dry where it crosses under Interstate 80 between Lincoln and Omaha and near Ashland, where Lincoln has wells along the river.
And, as the drought tightened its grip in 2012, Lincoln residents faced mandatory watering restrictions.
Loup and Elkhorn tributaries normally provide enough water to keep the Platte flowing year-round downstream from Columbus toward Lincoln.
“I think this is a situation we’re watching very closely in our district,” said Stan Staab, general manager of the Lower Elkhorn NRD.
UNL’s Aiken noted that Nebraska has chosen to assign responsibility for groundwater resources, including action on new irrigation wells, to NRDs at the local level since they were established in the 1970s.
“In most western states, it’s a state permitting process,” he said. “And in Nebraska, the fully appropriated process gives the state the ability to turn the switch on or off, but that’s a fairly blunt instrument.”
Brian Dunnigan, director of the Department of Natural Resources, declared the Lower Platte Basin fully appropriated in 2009, but reversed that preliminary decision amid complaints from irrigators and questions about the water studies that he used to make that choice.
The Legislature subsequently limited how many more irrigated acres the Lower Elkhorn and six sister NRDs upstream from Lincoln could add on an annual basis in so-called high impact areas near surface water sources.
“I was pleased to see that the Legislature adopted that,” Aiken said, “because in the absence of that, it would have been just wide open.”
That four-year cap expired last year.
But Staab said more conservation measures put in place by his board of directors in January, including water meters that measure irrigation use and allocation limits in some areas, show that NRDs can look after the broader public interest.
“I think we proved that local boards can react and react pro-actively,” he said.
The latest report on new irrigation wells from the state did not include a breakdown by NRD. One reason is that well drillers have 60 days to register a new well from the last day of 2012. That means the current count is not final.
Statewide, there were 17,551 new wells added from 1993-2011.