Two interesting developments could help play a role in saving the Ogallala aquifer, an underground water resource that helps drive a $35 billion ag economy in the Great Plains region.
A new simulation modeling study, conducted by the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agricultural Project, and funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, may improve the amount of irrigated wheat grown and promote proper fertilizer application using mathematical models and carefully collected data.
Winter wheat is being studied under different irrigation and fertilizer amounts, and the USDA says results show farmers may be able to use half the amount of water that they usually need to effectively irrigate their wheat crops.
Another technology that has been studied for a few years now is a mobile drip irrigation system designed by Kansas State University. It’s a system retrofitted to existing center pivot systems that is monitored and managed by mobile phone. Studies have shown this mobile system can save farmers 30-60% compared to conventional sprinkler irrigation.
Kansas State’s evaluation of this system at a farm in Hoxie, which is a bit dated from 2004, still did find no positive or negative impact on yield from mobile irrigation vs. a standard drop nozzle system, and problems with wheel pivot tracks were reduced. One company that I am aware of, Dragon-Line out of Ulysses, Kan., is providing this type of technology.
Using less water can help save the aquifer, which underlies 175,000 square miles in eight states. Farms in these states support 30% of all U.S. crop and livestock production. At the current rate of use, part of the Ogallala could be exhausted within this century and may take 6,000 years to restore, the USDA says.
To me it’s amazing that new tools are frequently coming to the surface that could head off problems with aquifer. Now it’s time to figure out how we can convince enough farmers that we have a problem with the aquifer and that adopting precision irrigation methods would not only save them money but also help preserve a vital resource.
Perhaps it’s time for governors in these 8 states to get together and press the federal government for more incentives to improve adoption of these technologies. Simply waiting for a miracle will not work.