The Sidney Sun-Telegraph - Serving proudly since 1873 as the beautiful Nebraska Panhandle's first newspaper

By Lisana Eckenrode

Groundwater levels down despite spring snow


Last year’s drought conditions across Nebraska forced irrigators, municipalities, industry and other users to pump heavily from groundwater wells. Just how much water they used is beginning to show up in spring readings from observation wells that are maintained by natural resource districts.

Don Ogle, Information and Education Coordinator at the Sidney Natural Resource District (NRD), explained that last year was not only severe with little or no rain, but also hot and dry for so long that farmers required significant amounts of pumped water to keep crops going.

Ogle noted that water levels were down about 2.5 feet on an average as from same readings the year before.

“We hope for wetter years,” he said. “We need another pretty good rainy period.”

But Nebraska’s average rainfall is low to begin with. Ogle observed that the area averages 15-16 inches of rain per year. Last year, Nebraska had about half of that.

Ogle went on to say “With long, hot, dry summers, farmers have to make choice on water use. They want to make sure they have a crop in and see what the future brings. The water levels showed the stress. Water level changes mirror precipitation. When low on rain levels go down; it causes farmers to use more.”

Basically, “the farmers used more water; because it was a drier year, there was more demand,” Ogle said.

The NRD has long term programs in effect that are designed to basically assure that water resources remain for the long term. They “don’t want to use it all today so we still have it tomorrow,” he said.

Accordingly, the problem becomes one of planning and management of resources.

“People are going to be concerned about allocations,” Ogle explained. “They get only so much water over three years. If they use up the allocation in two years, they have to switch to another form or crop. One of the pressures that producers have is that we are not in an area with unlimited water and those limits vary depend on where you are in area.”

The range for this district is 14-18 inches, with the bulk of the district at 14 acre inches allocated per year which comes to a total of 42 acre inches allocated for a three-year period, Ogle pointed out. He also said that it is flexible on how much per year is allowed, but it will max-out at the total allocation.

Ogle explained that some farmers might use 20 the first year and that would leave them 22 for the next two year, which they might split at 11 inches per year. However the farmers choose to split the allocation up, it will still only be allowed to amount to the set maximum for three years for that district. The flexibility allows farmers to do what they need to do.

Ogle also noted that an acre inch is “what it takes to cover an acre of ground in one inch of water.”

The NRD is doing what they can about the problem and trying to make things better.

“Again, allocation is one thing. Another is trying to understand the water we have better,” Ogle says.

Water modeling is one thing that they are doing. Understanding “How it rains on the ground and soaks in and where it travels. Also trying to understand how long it takes to get to aquifer,” Ogle added.

The NRD is trying to understand everything about the resources that they have to manage.

They are also doing “Lot of studies in expanding the well network. With monitor wells, we measure where water level is in aquifer. This is a bigger part of picture that goes into the modeling effort,” said Ogle. “There are limits on how much we can pump. We can’t drill anymore high capacity wells.”

They are doing many things to try to make sure that they have enough water.

According to Ogle, “We are still in draught situation. But weeks ago, nearly all of Nebraska was in exceptional (the worst level) draught; now there is just a sliver in exceptional draught. Parts of the area are now in a severe or extreme draught. Extreme and exceptional draughts are when the water levels are affected.”

In conclusion, Ogle said that charts “show that the draught is easing, but we have a long way from being out of the woods.”


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