Studies offer insights into future water challenges, potential solutions in Nebraska

The papers, researched by the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, provide an ‘economic justification’ for science-based irrigation scheduling.
BY LUKE REYNOLDS
Agricultural irrigation system on sunny summer day. An aerial vi

Two recently published studies from Nebraska provide insights into sustainable water and agricultural management.  

Both studies were conducted by the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, Lincoln, Nebraska. The first advocates for revised estimates of crop water loss. This research discovered that commonly used coefficients tend to overestimate water needs under high evapotranspiration conditions, suggesting a potential for significant groundwater conservation. 

Christopher Neale, PhD, director of research at the institute, explains that the study’s findings are based on a decade-long analysis of measured evapotranspiration in corn/soy rotation fields. Implementing these revised estimates could lead to less groundwater extraction, conserving the groundwater that growers rely on to irrigate.  

The study, conducted by Ivo Gonçalves, Andy Suyker, Fábio Marin and Neale, demonstrated the effectiveness of the findings with a record-breaking corn yield in a Nebraska field using minimal irrigation. 

“Whether these results can contribute towards aquifer sustainability will depend on whether we can get farmers to implement the recommendations,” says Neale.  

The second study, also conducted by the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, focuses on the impact of aquifer depletion on crop yields. It reveals that as aquifers diminish, their capacity to support irrigation reduces, adversely affecting crop yields, especially during droughts.  

Nick Brozović, PhD, director of policy at the Institute, emphasizes that small changes in aquifer thickness can significantly impact crop production and resilience. This study highlights the importance of managing aquifer levels to sustain agricultural productivity in the face of climate change. 

“As you draw down an aquifer to the point that it’s quite thin, very small changes in the aquifer thickness will then have progressively larger and larger impacts on your crop production and resilience,” says Brozović. “And that’s a thing that we don’t predict well, because we tend to predict based on the past. So if we base what’s going to happen on our past experience, we’re always going to underpredict. We’re always going to be surprised by how bad things get.” 

Brozović notes that both studies, though using different methods, contribute to the broader discussion on food and water security during droughts and climate change. The research underscores the economic and environmental benefits of science-based irrigation scheduling, which could alleviate pressure on aquifers while optimizing crop yields. 

“Our work uses historical crop yield data to show that the economic damages, in terms of lost crop production, from aquifer depletion increase nonlinearly with decreasing aquifer thickness,” says Brozović.  

“Christopher’s work provides research and a recommendation that growers might not need to irrigate as much during droughts as previously thought,” he says. “If such recommendations on irrigation scheduling were taken up at scale, this would reduce the pressure on aquifer depletion. So together, the papers provide an economic justification, in terms of both ROI in a single growing season and capitalized value of long-term asset preservation, for science-based irrigation scheduling.” 

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