It doesn’t take a scientist, economist or accountant to confirm that irrigation provides huge economic benefits to Nebraska’s farmers and the entire state economy, especially in a dry year.
All that’s required is a drive down country roads on a warm, steamy early August day to observe the difference between dark green irrigated cornstalks standing like soldiers at attention and drought-damaged, dead or dying plants on dryland pivot irrigation corners.
“We all know there is a value to irrigation,” said Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson, while sitting at his farm office desk southeast of Axtell. “It’s not something you calculate very often.”
However, as 2012 dragged on dry and dusty, and with memories still fresh of a six-year (or longer in some places) drought to start the 21st century, Nebraska Farm Bureau leaders commissioned a study by Decision Innovation Solutions of Des Moines to make some calculations.
“I think that after the drought last year ... we thought it would be important to quantify what the real value of irrigation is,” Nelson said, especially as members of the Nebraska Water Sustainability Task Force wrestle this summer and throughout the fall to identify priorities for water uses and water project funding.
The Farm Bureau study found that the ability to irrigate crops in 2012 contributed nearly $11 billion to Nebraska’s economy that would have been lost if all the fields were in dryland production. Just the $7.1 billion in direct economic activity that would have been lost represents 8.8 percent of Nebraska’s 2011 gross domestic product, the study report says.
Of the 31,221 fewer jobs without irrigation, the report says more than one-third would have come from outside direct crop production.
Agriculture is Nebraska’s number one industry, so declines in farm productivity and income affects every economic sector.
Nelson said having economic impact numbers helps ag leaders educate the general public about the significant amount of money and significant number of jobs tied to irrigation. It’s a story that needs to be told more today because many Nebraskans have no direct link to production agriculture.
"This is a way to tell that story,” he said.
Nelson isn’t the only one who doesn’t envy members of the water sustainability task force, led by state Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, in having to define water “sustainability.”
“You cannot paint the water supply in the state with a broad brush,” said Tri-Basin Natural Resources District General Manager John Thorburn of Holdrege, because of the differences in growing conditions and climate.He said the task force’s biggest challenge is to find “a universally applicable definition of sustainability,” which could include a formula to measure factors such as climate, geology and level of development.
“It can mean a lot of things and it can mean different things to different people,” Nelson said. “...We’re constantly having to look at those differences. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to any issue like this. The best solutions are those that fit local conditions.”
Another use for the value of irrigation study will be to help illustrate to state legislators why it’s important to have adequate funding for water issues in Nebraska.
“That could be for research or infrastructure or other things,” Nelson said.
Thorburn hopes the Farm Bureau study’s results help remind decision makers and other Nebraskans not directly involved in production agriculture about the importance of water and specifically the water used for agriculture.
“There is water sustainability and there is economic sustainability,” Nelson said. “I don’t think you can look at one without the other.”
The above story originally ran in the Kearney Hub, Sat., Aug. 10.