Each year, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln releases a report showing areas of Nebraska that have lost or gained groundwater.
There’s one major bright spot in that report. The groundwater below Phelps and Gosper Counties in south-central Nebraska has risen more than 60 feet since well development began, and that’s thanks to the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District.
Now CNPPID is leading a precision farming pilot project designed to further reduce water usage to benefit the environment, wildlife and farmers. The project will also serve as a learning tool for farmers and others interested in maintaining a bountiful water supply in Nebraska.
The E-67 Telemetry Project involves building a precision agriculture infrastructure that allows farmers who irrigate through the CNPPID network to further reduce water usage. The new technology monitors weather conditions and crop water usage to let farmers know “down to the gallon” how much water should be applied to their corn and soybeans.
“Our farmers want to use the least amount of water to produce a full yield – just meet the crop water needs and nothing more than that,” said CNPPID Conservation Director Marcia Trompke.
It’s her job to ensure that CNPPID creates a sustainable agricultural future, where water is able to be replenished at the same rate or faster than it’s used.
Trompke said CNPPID decided to pursue this project because of its long-term mission to preserve water supplies and also because farmers want the ability to manage their water resources precisely.
CNPPID is right partner for water usage pilot
CNPPID is the largest irrigation district in Nebraska and oversees hydropower generation and supplying supplemental irrigation water to more than 108,000 acres of farm ground using Platte River Basin water instead of pulling from groundwater resources. The CNPPID system contains 500 miles of canals including 130 miles of pipeline canals on the south side of the Platte River between North Platte and Minden. The water for summer irrigation comes mainly from North Platte River water stored in Lake McConaughy (Central’s main storage reservoir near Ogallala).
The E-67 Telemetry project is funded through a three-year $194,000 grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust and is matched with labor and material costs donated by CNPPID, equipment discounts and donations through precision agriculture supplier McCrometer, Inc., based in California, and educational materials from the University of Nebraska Extension.
In the first year of the project, CNPPID installed crop monitoring devices at 26 field sites along the E-67 canal in Gosper County. There were 15 owners/tenants who agreed to learn the technology and help provide feedback on the value, ease of use and effectiveness of the devices.
Each crop monitoring device consists of a UHF radio transmitter, a solar panel to power the radio, a digital rain gauge and a digital flow meter. These individual pieces all communicate with a base station located near Johnson Lake. McCrometer donated two weather stations that calculate crop water use and evaporation.
“So now we know all the water parameters,” Trompke said. “We know what’s being used by the crop and what’s being put on and the starting soil moisture, so the daily soil water balance can be calculated.”
Regular information gathering leads to beneficial data
Water use information is collected every 15 minutes from the weather stations, and every hour from the field sites. That information is sent to a transmitter that uploads the information to a website where farmers can log into their individual accounts from a computer or mobile phone and access the latest information about their soil moisture.
Dylan Rowe, a fifth generation ag producer, farms 150 acres in the E-67 project. He said the monitoring system will eventually provide him data to be able to water his crops at just the right time.
“There are certain times of the year we want to use more water or less water, when the corn needs more water or when it’s more fruitful to have the water,” Rowe said. “It will help us manage it better.”
Watering the crops at just the right time will lead to higher yields without wasting water.
“We take as many steps as we can to be more efficient with water and fertilizer and everything,” he said.
At the request of farmers like Rowe, McCrometer created a special app that makes the monitoring system more user-friendly.
Future will bring even more farms into the pilot
Trompke said CNPPID chose the E-67 canal for the pilot project because irrigation water is diverted to farms in that area through an enclosed pipeline and it’s easier to start or stop the water flow based on individual irrigator’s needs. The E-67 canal serves 5,725 acres of farm ground.
In 2016, 25 more fields will be added to the pilot project. In 2017, all remaining sites will be added to complete the project
The information gathered from the testing sites could save farmers two or three irrigation sessions per season.
“That water can be saved in Lake McConaughy for the following year,” Trompke said. “That helps the recreation water supply in the lakes. It helps wildlife habitat. It has lots of benefits for our work with the endangered interior least turns and threatened piping plovers at Lake McConaughy.”
Trompke said this project also serves as a learning tool for anyone interested in precision water management. CNPPID has given several tours to university students and others to share the information gathered.
In the long run, it’s important for all Nebraskans to value the quality and quantity of water supplies for drinking water, recreation and to produce food.
“Irrigated ag is a big user of water in this state,” Trompke said. “So, if we are going to save water and get to a sustainable state in Nebraska, this is where we need to save. This is what we need to do.”
Central Nebraska Public Power Irrigation District
415 Lincoln St.
Call 308-995-8601 to schedule a tour of the CNPPID system.
Learn more here about the rises and declines in Nebraska ground water.