A Network That Works For Irrigators

Nebraska Notebook

They save water and energy costs while sharing data.

Published on: February 27, 2014

Neighboring farmers have worked together for years. They not only have helped each other out, but they've worked on projects with Extension educators, crop consultants and company reps. Today, we call that "partnering."

One of the best partnerships I've seen in this state in some time is the Nebraska Agricultural Water Management Network. It's impressive what this irrigation network, in existence since 2005, has done and what it will do in the future in the area of more efficient water use. Based on what the recently released UNL Nebraska Groundwater Level Monitoring Report found, the state's irrigators, on the 9 million acres they irrigate, will be asked, even mandated, to apply less water and use what they apply more efficiently. According to that report, between spring 2012 and spring 2013, the major groundwater declines across most of Nebraska were eye-popping. (Read our story in the March issue, on page 101).

A Network That Works For Irrigators
A Network That Works For Irrigators

The pressure is on the irrigators to do more.

As far as the 9-year-old network is concerned, 1,104 irrigators from across Nebraska can't be wrong. That's how many took part in the network last season. They installed moisture sensors and evapotranspiration gauges that tell them precisely when to irrigate. The big benefit is the sharing of daily water use data. Many of those 1,100 volunteer to upload their water use data to the NAWMN website, where fellow network irrigators and even non-network irrigators can see the results and learn more about irrigation scheduling with these tools. Go to water.unl.edu/cropwatch/NAWMN.

According to Suat Irmak, UNL soil and water resources/irrigation engineer, the network's irrigators since the project began have reduced water applied by an average of 2.3 inches a year without reducing yields and in some cases increasing yields. That's more crop per drop.

Since 2005, this reduction in pumping produced a savings of $60 million in energy costs.

Leading the partners is the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, specifically Suat Irmak, UNL soil and water resource/irrigation engineer. Irmak worked with Extension educators Gary Zoubek in York County, Jenny Rees in Clay County and Brandy VanDeWalle in Fillmore County, as well as the Upper Big Blue NRD to start the network.

It began with 15 cooperators and is now up to 1,104 irrigators in a dozen NRDs. A total of 270 joined the network before last season.

The network is the largest, most comprehensive ag water management network in the country. In fact, Catherine Woteki, USDA undersecretary for research, education and economics, described it late last year as one of the "most impactful" projects in the land-grant university system. She made those comments to Congress during a hearing on ag research funding. That's pretty heady stuff.

Other network partners, in addition to farmers, NRDs and UNL Extension, are USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, UNL's South Central Ag Laboratory and the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District.

You can still sign up to be part of the network. Contact your county Extension Educator or Suat Irmak, at 402-472-4865, or email him at sirmak2@unl.edu