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Why Iowa Farmers Are Turning To Irrigation During Drought. And Why Some Are Not.

Article originally appeared in the Gazette / Photo – Jim Slosiarek

In 2012, Iowa experienced its worst drought since 1936. The conditions took their toll on most of the year’s corn and soybean crops.

Lucky for Rob Sladek, a specialty corn and soybean farmer with acres throughout Southeast Iowa, his father had installed irrigation equipment on some of their family land in 2011.

“I don’t know if it was blind luck … but when my father put the first two pivots up, they almost paid for themselves the first year they ran because it was 2012,” Sladek said. His dad paid about $1,000 per acre for the equipment at the time. “Mother Nature rains when she chooses to. We’re able to water when the plant needs it.”

This year, 10 percent of his land is irrigated. He uses center-pivot irrigation that rotates sprinkler equipment around a pivot, spraying out water that has been sucked from either wells or a pond, depending on the property.

The equipment is coming in handy again during yet another drought year: August marked the sixth month in a row of less than normal rainfall in Iowa. By early September, severe drought conditions covered a quarter of the state for the first time since March 2013. Meanwhile, corn and soybean crops have continued to decline week over week since mid-August, according to this summer’s Iowa Crop Progress and Condition Reports.

It’s Iowa’s third year of drought in a row. Is that pushing more farmers to irrigate their crops? Slightly, according to federal data — but the decision also comes with financial and ecological costs. Continued research may reveal if more irrigation is feasible in Iowa.

“There’s a reason that Iowa leads the nation in corn production. Traditionally, we get enough water to raise a pretty damn good crop without irrigation,” Sladek said. “There’s going to become a tipping point where we have to get more from less every day. … At that point, you’re going to have to do things you’re not used to doing.

“Is irrigation possibly part of that picture? Yes.”

Status of irrigation

Irrigation isn’t prevalent in Iowa, especially when compared with the neighboring Nebraska, which has long led the nation in irrigation acreage.

In 2017, nearly 222,000 acres of Iowa farmland were irrigated — up 56 percent from 2002’s 142,109 acres, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. In comparison, Nebraska had about 8.6 million acres of irrigated farmland in 2017.

The current drought is strong motivation for adding crop irrigation, said state geologist Keith Schilling, so it wouldn’t surprise him if some farmers are considering it. But that motivator — and the need for supplemental water — may not be always be there.

“We see a major drought once every decade or so. … And then it rains, and all of that alarm goes away until the next big drought comes along. It’s a little cyclical,” Schilling said. “Farmers are going to have to plan accordingly should they invest in irrigation that will not be needed every year.”

Even so, irrigation is slowly but surely growing in Iowa. Water use permits for irrigation purposes have increased 1 percent each year for the last 10 years, according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources senior environmental engineer Michael Anderson.

There are now 1,549 active irrigation permits and about 3,500 irrigation wells in the state. In fiscal 2023, there were 33 new water use permits approved for crop irrigation.

Water use permits in Iowa, 2023

In Iowa, there are around 3,500 irrigation wells and 1,549 active irrigation permits. There has been a 1 percent increase in irrigation permitting each year over the last 10 years in the state, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Source: Iowa Department of Natural Resources

Drawbacks to consider

Irrigation comes at a price in terms of both financial and water resources.
Typical center-pivot irrigation systems — one of the more popular irrigation methods — can cost around $1,100 per acre to install, estimated Xin Qiao of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Panhandle Research & Extension Center. Pricing varies per project depending on the equipment manufacturer, the land itself and how piping and energy sources must be configured to power the irrigation.

On top of installation costs, farmers must also consider continued operating and maintenance costs for the equipment. That includes electricity bills, water costs and replacement parts — which can add thousands of dollars.

Irrigation equipment prices in Iowa have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began, said Mark Stumpenhorst, owner of Hook’s Point Irrigation with locations in Stratford and Conesville. He has been in the industry for 35 years, installing about 1,000 irrigation systems across the state. Certain replacement parts have become harder to come by, he said, driving overall costs up.

Would that financial investment dissuade interested farmers? Maybe not, said Sotirios Archontoulis, an Iowa State University agronomy professor who studied irrigation in Muscatine between 2017 and 2019.

“I don’t think cost is going to be a major barrier for the expansion of irrigation in Iowa,” he said. “When a drought comes, and if farmers lose yield, there is a reaction in the market. The (crop) prices are usually very high. … If a farmer had irrigation that year and gets super high yield, he gets the win-win scenario: high yield, high price.”

Even if more farmers wanted irrigation, some areas don’t have access to water sources or the ability to pump enough water.

There are two main options for irrigation sources: collecting from water bodies or pumping groundwater. Those water resources aren’t evenly distributed across the state.

Eastern Iowa has more plentiful groundwater resources, Schilling said, while central and western parts of the state largely rely on water from and around major rivers. As the rivers get impacted by drought, so do their water reserves.

“Western Iowa is the driest part of the state. They get less rainfall, less groundwater recharge, and less watering,” Schilling said. “The demand is there.”

Where more irrigation can be implemented, it makes less water available for other uses, like drinking water or other commercial industries. Users may have to dig deeper for water, which would make it more expensive.

Existing water usage is already taking a toll on Iowa’s water resources.

The Dakota Aquifer, which spots of Western Iowa rely on, is already showing evidence of depletion, Schilling said. Shallow groundwater pockets alongside rivers are even more vulnerable to drying out, as seen when the Ocheyedan River in Northwest Iowa ran dry last year due to drought and pumping from a rural water utility.

Depletion has ecological impacts for aquatic species and ecosystems that depend on water flow to survive. Smaller volumes of water in ecosystems also make threats, like pollution, that much more potent without dilution.

“I don’t think it’s debatable that aquatic organisms that depend on water need water,” Schilling said.

Research in action

Climate projections forecast wetter springs and hotter, drier summers for the Midwest — a difficult duo of extremes for farmers to combat in their fields.

Matt Helmers, director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, and his team are looking into a potential solution: drainage water recycling.

It’s when tile drainage or runoff from fields — which would otherwise feed into waterways — is captured, stored in ponds and recycled as supplemental irrigation on those fields when needed. Recycling can help increase crop yields while improving downstream water quality.

Helmers’ research is part of an eight-state regional project looking into the practice, called Transforming Drainage. He has been monitoring impacts to the crops of a farmer near Story City, who implemented the practice himself. Helmers has found the recycled irrigation has produced an additional 20 to 30 bushels of corn per acre on average for six years.

Other study sites in the Corn Belt have seen average corn yield increases as high as 19 percent, with a 29 percent increase in dry years. Soybean increases can reach 12 percent overall and 25 percent in dry years.

It would be close to $1,000 per acre just to install the irrigation equipment, Helmers estimated. Other factors include constructing the storage pond and factoring the cost of the land it takes out of productive. Could it all be worth it?

“That is why we’re doing the research,” Helmers said. “I think that in certain settings, it’s going to be maybe financially beneficial as well as environmentally beneficial. But we need to do more research to understand where those locations are.”