COLBY, Kan. -- The last thing Big Bow, Kan. farmer Wendell Nicholas wants -- or needs -- is trouble with the government.
A little over two years ago, Nicholas was in a position that many progressive, western Kansas farmers find themselves in. He was pumping nearly 1600 gallons of water per minute to irrigate 320 acres of corn and wheat. He was butting right up against the state's maximum allowable water allocation.
"It's fair to say we were close to not being in compliance," Nicholas said. "And we were looking for solutions."
Research aimed at giving western Kansas farmers a "solution" recently turned 10 years old. But because farmers have not yet embraced subsurface drip irrigation (SDI), Kansas State University researchers studying the technology have a lot of answers, and not as many questions.
'When we began studying SDI in 1989, we really weren't in a crisis situation at the time; essentially no one in Kansas was using SDI for row crops," said Freddie Lamm, a K-State Research and Extension irrigation engineer based in Colby. "So before people were beating down our doors looking for answers, we got ahead of the curve and now we are able to give answers to common questions."
The system utilizes underground lines (drip tapes) which run the length and breadth of a field. Its pronounced advantages over center pivot sprinklers is that SDI can cover square areas -- sprinklers limit irrigation to a circle in a square field -- and water is fed directly to the plant's roots.
SDI also saves 25 percent of the water used over center pivot sprinklers by eliminating traditional losses from drainage, runoff and evaporation; and some SDI-users have reported 10 percent better corn yields.
"(SDI) makes it easier to farm," said Eldon Schmidt of Copeland, Kan. "We don't have any problems with the wind blowing our irrigation system over. We don't have to buy insurance for our irrigation system. We do have leaks to fix, and occasionally a rodent might get into the system, but that's not nearly as serious as pulling a sprinkler out of a mud hole."
Schmidt was one of the state's earliest adopters of SDI. Like Nicholas, "we were bumping up against our certified water allocation," he said. "We began by installing drip irrigation on 24 acres to convince ourselves it was something we wanted to do."
The next year, he was sold. Corn yields from his SDI tract were 20 bushels per acre higher than adjacent, flood-irrigated fields. Water usage in the SDI field was cut in half (24 inches per acre with flood irrigation, 12 inches under SDI). By that fall, Schmidt installed SDI on 200 more acres.
"The water savings," he said, "is not something we can put a dollar cost on. It's about saving water for future generations."
Indeed, in western Kansas, irrigation accounts for nearly 95 percent of the total water use. The water that farmers like Schmidt and Nicholas use comes from the region's lifeblood -- the large, underground water source known as the Ogallala aquifer. Scientists fear that the Ogallala aquifer is rapidly depleting.
"It's an exciting and growing time for subsurface drip irrigation," said Todd Trooien, an irrigation engineer at the K-State Southwest Research-Extension Center in Garden City. "No doubt, we've shown that SDI is an efficient and uniform way to use water."
Holding back widespread adoption of the technology, however, is the farmer's cost to install an adequate system -- about $570 per acre compared to $320 per acre for a center pivot sprinkler. On fields the size of Schmidt's and Nicholas', an SDI system must last about 17 years to make up the cost difference, researchers say.
"I think that is possible," K-State's Lamm said. "There are commercial systems in Texas which have been in operation for more than 20 years. If farmers are able to keep the system from becoming plugged -- by using filtration, water treatments and monitoring the system -- they could easily keep the system operational for 15 to 20 years."
Currently, there are 8,000 acres in Kansas dedicated to forms of drip irrigation. Lamm said "almost all of that" is SDI acreage. Since 1994, the state's SDI acreage has increased an average of 1,000 acres per year.
The technology is in use in other states, particularly for growing some fruits and vegetables and specialty crops. Research in Kansas is directed to the 31 western-most counties, where an estimated 2.24 million acres are under irrigation.
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