Paying Farmers to Not Irrigate

Irrigation SystemsAfter decades of federal funding for massive surface water irrigation systems and decades of research and promotion of groundwater irrigation, we have reached a time when farmers may be paid to NOT irrigate their crops. Others are being prohibited from irrigating.

For instance, in south central Nebraska, the Republican River meanders along the border. It’s dammed at Alma for flood control, irrigation and recreation, and then crosses over into Kansas. The problem is that in 1943, Nebraska signed a legal compact with Kansas and Colorado setting out which states should get how much water from the river. In the 90s, a drought and heavy irrigation use in the river basin meant that Kansas farmers didn’t get the water they were promised.

Kansas sued Nebraska and won, but the legal wrangling has continued for over a decade. At one point there was a $70 million judgment against Nebraska, and the state implemented an “occupation” tax of $10 an acre on irrigators in the basin. That was later overturned in court and legislators are trying to change the formula (as of 2009).

In the meantime, the state government and Natural Resource Districts in the basin have been searching for ways to reduce the demands on water in the river. In one experiment, they starting chopping out trees and bushes along the river bank trying to reduce the water that vegetation draws out.

But the ultimate solution is, of course, to limit irrigation particularly in dry years. Those proposals produced a loud and angry response from farmers who rely on the water for their crops. “How many millions of dollars or economic devastation was there this morning,” farmer Matt Harrison asked state officials at an informational hearing in 2006. The river basin is home to 65,000 people and 1.3 million acres of irrigated cropland.

The state was proposing that in the worst case scenario, farmers within two miles of the river would be forced to shut off their irrigation systems if the Harlan County Lake dropped to a third of its maximum level. Irrigators counter that they made investments based on the availability of water, so the state and federal governments were going back on their agreements. They also argue that the state entered into the compact, and so the state should pay them for breaking their deal.

The political reality is that there aren’t enough votes in the state legislature to pay farmers for all of their losses. The debate continues as of 2010.

In the meantime, Nebraska and the federal Farm Service Agency set up a new Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) that would pay irrigated farmers in the Republican and Platte River basins to take their land out of production and plant it in grass. The program committed $158 million in federal and state funds to pay for 10 to 15 year conservation contracts. Farmers would get annual rental payments as well as a one-time “signing bonus” when they signed up.

As of February 2007, there were 454 contracts in place covering 43,458 acres.

A similar CREP program was set up for irrigators in the lower Platte, lower Elkhorn and upper Big Blue River basins in the eastern part of the state, as well. The problem there is that there are so many irrigators that water managers are coming close to declaring that the region “fully appropriated.” That’s a legal concept that means the existing irrigators are mining the aquifer to that point that long-term damage could happen. In the 2000s, many savvy farmers saw the time coming when the state would no longer approve any more new wells, and there was a rush to get approvals, dig wells and buy center pivot systems.

The “Central Basins CREP” covers parts of 37 of Nebraska’s 93 counties. The program appropriated up to $209 million to pay farmers to put their irrigated acres into the Conservation Reserve and plant grass and other ground cover species. As of February 2007, there were 2,016 contracts in place covering 24,221 acres.

This is not the first time or place that restrictions on irrigation have been implemented, sometimes as voluntary actions and sometimes as mandatory laws.

For instance, in the 1970s, irrigation “virtually stopped” in Dawson County, Texas, because the Ogallala Aquifer there got so low and fuel prices got so high that it wasn’t economically feasible to pump the wells.

In California in 1991, drought forced the cutoff of water from the California State Water Project to all irrigators just as the spring planting season was starting. The cutoff affected thousands of farmers and over 100,000 acres.

In 2009, dry conditions and tight water restrictions meant that farmers in the state will have to idle 300,000 to 400,000 acres. “We really have never seen that amount of acres taken out of production before,” said Mike Henry of the California Farm Water Coalition.

In Colorado, the legislature set up an Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) to come up with recommendations for handling the state’s future water needs. The IBCC has been trying to balance the needs of farmers against the needs of urban dwellers against the needs of the tourism industry – the state’s largest industry. The agency puts some of the choices in stark terms – either dry up 400,000 acres of irrigated farmland, build a couple of more pipelines through the Rockies, or put 5 million new residents (plus the 5 million already there) on permanent watering restrictions or shower schedules.

Those are the types of choices that many agricultural states will face in the 21st century.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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