Economic Tidbits

Water in the Panhandle—Invaluable

Invaluable—the response by a former state senator (and current NEFB staff member) who represented the Panhandle when asked to describe the value of water to western Nebraska. Water’s value to western Nebraska was one of the topics at an August conference sponsored by the UNL Water Center, “The Shape of Water in Western Nebraska.” Held in Scottsbluff, the conference included presentations and discussions on the value of water, water infrastructure, western Nebraska’s unique hydrology, and innovations in water management.

The Panhandle averages 15 inches of precipitation annually and requires around 14 inches of supplemental irrigation to raise corn. For context, the supplemental irrigation requirement for corn in eastern Nebraska is 5 inches. This difference alone speaks to the value of irrigation in western Nebraska.

Figure 3 shows the number of irrigated acres and the share of irrigated acres as a proportion of total crop acres in each Panhandle county. Three counties—Scotts Bluff, Box Butte, and Morrill—dominate irrigated crop production in the Panhandle, each having over 120,000 irrigated acres. Each of these counties is heavily dependent on irrigation for crop production with irrigated acres comprising 94 percent of harvested acres in Scotts Bluff County, 57 percent in Box Butte, and 70 percent in Morrill County.

Figure 3. Irrigated Acres & Percentage of Crop Acres Irrigated

Source: NEFB graphic based on USDA NASS, 2017 Census of Agriculture data

Table 1 shows the extent crops grown in these three counties rely on irrigation. All of the sugar beets grown in the counties are irrigated, between 70-94 percent of the corn acres are irrigated, and 91-98 percent of the dry beans are irrigated. It’s clear that absent water for irrigation, crops grown in the Panhandle would look vastly different. There would be fewer acres cropped, far fewer acres of sugar beets, corn, and dry beans, and more acres of wheat, sunflowers, or millet.

Table 1. Percent of Harvest Acres Irrigated by Crop

Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2017 Census of Agriculture

The value of water to farmers in the Panhandle is evident in both land values and rental rates. Across the 11 Panhandle counties, the value of irrigated cropland averages $2,000 per acre more than dryland cropland according to data from the Nebraska Department of Revenue. Moreover, USDA data shows rental rates on irrigated ground are almost $130 per acre higher on average compared to dryland rates. But the value of irrigation doesn’t stop at the farm level. Absent water, there would be fewer input suppliers, processors, equipment dealers, and farms as dryland production could not support the infrastructure which has grown to support the irrigated commodities produced in the region. It’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that without water the sugar beet processing facility in Scottsbluff wouldn’t exist. And without sugar beet processing, there would have been no Nebraska scenes in the Oscar winning movie, Nomadland.

Invaluable. It’s an excellent way to describe the value of water in the Nebraska Panhandle.

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