Irrigation’s impact on agriculture during the drought of 2012

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Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

The drought of 2012 was the worst since at least 1988, spanning the entire Corn Belt, from Ohio to Wyoming, and costing the agribusiness industry billions of dollars.

“Regionwide, many of the agricultural impacts were similar, but impacts in other sectors varied by state,” Brian Fuchs wrote in the National Drought Mitigation Center’s Central U.S. 2012 Drought Assessment. “The drought’s effects varied throughout the region — not too surprising considering the differences in the climatic regimes from east to west and north to south in this part of the United States.”

One effect that stayed the same throughout many effected states is the role of irrigation. The impacts were so great that leading experts from nine states wrote about its effect on their state in the report.

Here’s a breakdown of what each expert said:

Colorado

Whether areas had adequate water supplies for irrigation had a large effect on agriculture during the 2012 drought. For example, the fruit growers in the western part of the state had good crops, but rangeland and “extensive irrigated pasturelands” were hit hard. By August 2012, 81 percent were rated poor or very poor. Hay prices also rose, as production fell to 10 to 50 percent of average and buyers had to go as far as northern Montana, Idaho and the Carolinas, according to Wendy Ryan and Nolan Doesken of the Colorado Climate Center.

Illinois

“Agricultural irrigation increased in 2012,” wrote Jim Angel, Illinois state climatologist. “The combination of the drought and high commodity prices triggered a significant expansion of irrigation across Illinois that continued in 2013. There were several complaints of irrigation operations pumping hard enough to drop neighboring farms’ well levels.”

Kentucky

Irrigation proved its worth in Kentucky, where yield was as high as 225 bushels per acre in areas where typical yield are near 150 bushels per acre and in 2012, yields were as low as 50 to 70 bushels.

“Based on field reports, irrigation has been adopted at an increasing rate in recent years, driven largely by high commodity prices, particularly corn,” wrote Stu Foster, Kentucky State Climate Office. “Observed differences in yields produced on irrigated versus non-irrigated land during the drought of 2012 are expected to continue to drive decisions by farmers to invest in irrigation systems, as systems are increasingly found in areas where large-scale irrigation has not traditionally been utilized.”

Michigan

“In areas where groundwater is relatively less abundant, links between well failure and nearby agricultural irrigation were observed, as irrigation wells are typically drilled much deeper than most home wells and have high pumping capacities, resulting in a potentially significant cone of depression in the local water table,” wrote Jeff Andresen and Aaron Pollyea from Michigan State University.

Minnesota

“Agricultural irrigation is now the second largest user of groundwater in Minnesota,” wrote Greg Spoden of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Two hundred crop watering permits were issued in 2012, twice 63 the number from the previous year and reflecting an upward trend in irrigated acreage.”

Missouri

Irrigation was happening early and often in Missouri amid “reports of deteriorating pastures, declining soil moisture reserves, limited stock water supplies, and crop stress increased significantly as May progressed,” wrote Pat Guinan of the Missouri State Climate Office.

Nebraska

In Nebraska, widespread irrigation had a positive economic impact, worth about $780 million and preserving more than 7,000 jobs, according to Natalie A. Umphlett of the High Plains Regional Climate Center.

South Dakota

In areas without irrigation available, such as southeastern and south central South Dakota, yield was as low as 0 to 50 bushels per acre of corn.

Irrigated areas saw yields ranging from 125 to 175 bushels per acre, though farmers reported yields of “0 to 10 bushel-per-acre yields in the corners of fields that were outside of center-pivot irrigation systems.”

“With the increase in corn prices coupled with the drought of 2012, interest in irrigation reached an all-time high in South Dakota, and the subsequent requests for well permits created a several-month backlog and a large increase in the number of permits issued,” wrote Laura M. Edwards and Dennis Todey from South Dakota State University.

Wyoming

Irrigation fluctuated a great deal based on the geography of the state, according to Tony Bergantino of the Wyoming State Climate Office.

In central west Wyoming, dry conditions allowed for irrigation all summer long, and crops came in earlier than ever before. In other parts, however, water dried up completely in May and June, and irrigation was almost nonexistent.

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