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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Conference emphasizes efficiency

Monday, March 7, 2011

Area farmers listen to presenters at the 25th annual Southwest Nebraska Water Conference.
(Gazette photo)
McCOOK, Nebraska -- The Southwest Nebraska Water Conference featured six different speakers at its 25th annual conference Friday at the Red Willow County Fairgrounds Community Building. Featured speakers included both the Upper and Middle Republican Natural Resource District managers, extension educators, and various agriculture specialists from around the state.

MRNRD manager Dan Smith spoke first. He reported that the MRNRD has lowered its total certified acres by nearly 4,000 acres since 2005, to 309,664. The number of Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program acres is now at 13, 390 and the number of Environmental Quality Incentive Program acres are at 4,000 temporary acres and 1,130 permanent acres.

Other programs that have retired acres include:

* 453 acres permanently retired from the Acreage Reduction Program

* 2,195 temporary acres and 1160 permanent acres retired from the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program

* 600 acres retired from transfer reduction and decertification

"We have a total of 22,851 idled acres or 7.4 percent of our total acres," said Smith.

He also gave updated reports on legislative matters concerning the MRNRD. LB 229, which would transfer seven million dollars from the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund to the Water Resources Cash Fund on July 1, 2011, and every July 1 thereafter through July 1, 2021, has moved out of committee.

Following Smith, MRNRD assistant manager Bob Merrigan spoke briefly about water usage reports, which have been mailed to farmers. He asked that farmers make meters more accessible to the MRNRD staff members as it will speed up the process of checking meters. Another request made asked farmers to unlock gates on the day the MRNRD is checking the meters.

"We understand farmers want to protect their lands, and that is no problem for us, but we do lose a lot of time when checking meters if gates are locked, or meters are difficult to find," said Merrigan.

Other reminders given by Merrigan were that meters have to be permanently mounted and in the same place every year; they have to be unobstructed; it's asked that meters be within readable height, and not on top of a pivot; that farmers check meters in summer for problems or fixes needed on a meter so that the MRNRD can fix them; notify the district of new operators; and if a well is unused, to notify the district, and change the status to that of a temporary inactive well. Inactive wells do not have to be recorded in state reports while unused wells do have to be reported.

"Kansas will ask why the wells were unused," said Merrigan. "We can avoid that with making them temporarily inactive."

Jim Hicks, a state environmental engineer with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, presented information regarding the two dam sites being rebuilt, 80a and 32a. The information presented was the same as presented at previous MRNRD board meetings. While there has been no progress since winter weather arrived, Hicks and his crew are ready to get back to work once warmer weather has come to stay.

Some notes from his presentation include that site 80a, north of Maywood, is complete after discovering several sink holes beyond the original crack. The crews found abandoned animal shelters, and even rattlesnake remnants in some of the holes in the dam. To fix the site, the crews dug down to the foundation of the dam and rebuilt it using a chimney filter.

On site 32a, on the Hitchcock and Hayes County line at Blackwood Creek, the crew discovered similar sinkholes as at site 80a. The site also had a large crack that occurred after back-to-back 8-10 inch rains knocked the center abutment out. To fix the dam, Hicks and his crew created a vertical chimney filter. Dam production was halted after the ground began to frost. The process of building a chimney filter in the dam includes packing a vertical or stair-stepped sand section with both water and dirt.

During Hicks' question and answer period at the end of his presentation, he was asked what other structures in the area may need the same reconstruction. He spoke optimistically about the 17 other structures, noting that four of the dams have chimney filters in place, including sites 80a and nearly complete 32a.

"We have 13 other dams to check, and at least two of them appear to have voids," said Hicks. "The [dams] have done their jobs, but they unfortunately haven't reached their life expectancy."

Steve Melvin, a UNL extension educator, followed Hicks and spoke about watershed water balance. His presentation focused on how water use could be maximized to experience as little loss as possible. He also used the term evapotranspiration; defined as the loss of water through evaporation and plant transpiration. How much evapotranspiration can fluctuate based on wind, solar radiation, humidity and temperature. Currently, approximately 88 percent of precipitation goes to evapotranspiration, six percent is due to increased stream flow and eight percent due to irrigation. Melvin did note that the percentages dropped to 18 percent overall evapotranspiration when just farmland was looked at and not the entire state.

Jasper Fanning, URNRD manager, gave a presentation on both what his district has been doing and on augmentation projects. The new augmentation project in the URNRD was a purchase of 3,300 irrigated acres and the cost was $10 million and includes the sale of structures on the property. The district plans on using the water that had been allocated to those acres to supplement shortages during dry years.

"It could cost the district $50 million to go the retirement only process," said Fanning, "this allowed [the URNRD] to spend $15 million to get the same results." The district also will build a pipeline to allow the water pumped to travel to the district's desired location.

Following his presentation, Fanning was asked by Claude Cappel, "when the river goes dry how does that water get to Alma?" Fanning responded by saying that this project will put 10,000 acre feet of water into the river and it would create water flow.

Cappel's fear was that "it will shut down the quick response acres further down the river."

Fanning asked that everyone look at the big picture instead of just the one project, "We believe this won't shut off anybody, it will help. If [people] look at this project as part of a whole picture, it will help prevent the shut down."

Fanning said that he believes the URNRD board could raise the occupation tax to help cover the full cost of the land purchase. If the district had the ability to compensate farmers in the event of a shut off, the district would compensate them..

"A fair way for compensation is to ask an appraiser what the [cost] difference between irrigated and dry land is, and then [the district] would pay the difference. The economic principle is the buyer will think he paid too much, and the seller will think he didn't get paid enough," said Fanning, who has a PhD in economics from Kansas State University.

H20 Options and Brown and Caldwell presented a joint work about their water balance study in the Republican River Basin. Their hope for the study was to create a better understanding of water balance in the basin, evaluate water management practices, and create a working relationship between Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska. Their finding included that the three Republican River Basin districts have a similar split of land use between range land, non-irrigated farm land, and irrigated farm land.

The MRNRD has the largest mass of land at 2.43 million acres. The land is broken up with 62 percent range land, 24 percent non-irrigated farm land, and 20 percent irrigated farm land. The URNRD has 1.73 million total acres with a land breakdown of 50 percent range land, 24 percent non-irrigated farm land and 24 percent irrigated farm land. The URNRD land break up is slightly different as they have more urban land use than the MRNRD. The LRNRD has a land breakdown of 55 percent range land, 23 percent non-irrigated farm land and 18 percent irrigated farm land.

Other items covered by the two companies included a breakdown of how the flow of water looked in the entire river basin and what the group planned to do with the information. The water breakdown did give a positive reading for the basin as a whole and the information gained from this study will be given to the various NRD boards for review and consideration.

Tim Shaver, a nutrient specialist and extension educator from North Platte, spoke after a short lunch break about crop canopy sensors. Shaver and other educators have been testing and studying nitrogen and water sensors on crops.

They are discovering that with these crop canopy sensors a farmer can apply less nitrates to their crops and still get a maximum profit. Part of Shaver's presentation pointed out that a farmer could apply almost 100 pounds per feet less of nitrogen to their crop and get similar results in overall growth to their crop if the farmer optimized their spraying of nitrogen.

"The loss of a handful of bushels from the crop would be surpassed by the saving in nitrogen costs," said Shaver during his presentation.

The sensors currently on the market range from $2,500 to $30,000, and use a range of light technology to determine the nitrogen levels in a plant.

Shaver said that they are still working on studying and testing the sensors regarding how they help determine the water levels of the plants, but noted that it is very promising because it could help area and world-wide farmers use less water on their crops while still maximizing growth and limiting water runoff and waste.

Robert Swanson with the USGS spoke on some of the projects completed over the past 15 years. His focus was on nitrate readings done by the USGS in Southwest Nebraska. The data from monthly sampling and monitoring of wells done from 1993-95 was presented. Swanson also presented some information regarding the water depletion ratings of the High Plains Aquifer. The aquifer reaches from as far north as South Dakota and all the way down in to west central Texas. All of the information presented can be found on the USGS website.

Aaron Thompson with the Bureau of Reclamation presented information about the Red Willow Dam and the process that his group is going through to begin reconstruction of the dam.

"We found a suspicious hole in our initial investigation, which led to more inspections and the discovery of more holes," said Thompson. He further explained that there were two types of holes found in the earthen dam. The first is a top down hole which is less of a worry because it can be seen most of the time. The second type, a bottom up hole, is much more worrisome according to Thompson because it sometimes can't be seen until it is quite sizable.

To date, Thompson and his crew have finished the corrective action study, evaluation of alternatives, and selection of recommended alternatives. The project has been sent to the U.S. Congress for approval. Congress has approved $10 million for the project, but until a budget has been passed, Thompson and his crew won't be able to begin receiving bids to rebuild the dam which is projected to take no less than two years to complete.

Other findings and information that Thompson presented included the aerial seeding of the areas where Hugh Butler Lake was lowered; that the boat ramp at the lake has been made longer to allow for recreation in the lake; and the Frenchman Cambridge Irrigation District would be responsible for 15 percent of the costs of the dam as they have water rights to parts of the lake.

"The lake levels are still high enough for recreation to take place. [The lake] is just not as big as it was before we released the water," said Thompson.

Following his presentation, some concerns brought up by the conference goers were how refilling the lake would affect farmers downriver, whether the water would affect Nebraska's compliance with the compact, and when the spill gates would be reopened for irrigation purposes. Thompson apologized, but said he was unfortunately not the one who could answer those questions.

The final presenter for the day was Cory Fuehrer, the energy efficiency program director at Nebraska Public Power District.

He began his presentation with, "How many of you get to go out and sell people on buying less of what you are trying to sell?"

Fuehrer's job is to find ways for people to maximize the use of their electricity, effectively using less of it over time. His presentation concentrated on how a farmer could make improvements to their pumping efficiency. He pointed out that most farmers don't do improvements to their pumps, noting that adjusting impellers or overhauling a pump can help save a farmer money. Fuehrer also reiterated that doing routine efficiency checks would save a farmer from having to completely replace a pump or doing a full well rehabilitation.

"The more efficient a pump the more money [a farmer] can save. A fully efficient pump can save almost $2,000 a full pivot a year," said Fuehrer.

All a farmer would need to do to begin the process of getting an Energywise Irrigation Efficiency test is to contact their local power district.

After the presenters finished, many of the conference goers checked out the vendors in attendance and won free-giveaways donated by vendors. The conference was moderated by master of ceremonies Buck Haag, the MRNRD board chairman.

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