LENRD Drought Series; The Unrelenting Summer Of 2022

NORFOLK – A series of articles pertaining to the drought are being written by staff at the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District.

According to a release from LENRD assistant manager Brian Bruckner, drought is an insidious, slow-onset natural hazard that produces a complex web of impacts that ripple through many sectors of the economy, and unfortunately, we are witnessing many of the negative impacts right in our own backyard.

The unrelenting heat and lack of precipitation are withering crops and pastures, causing heat stress for livestock and humans alike, and causing many communities to enforce watering restrictions to force conservation of groundwater. The spike in demand from all groundwater users is also taking its toll, with many well owners reporting a decline in the performance of their well, causing many to lower their pumps deeper into the well casing if they have the option. A seasonal decline in static water levels is typical with the onset of irrigation season, but conditions this summer tend to parallel those created during the acute drought that occurred in 2012.

Many observation wells in the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District (LENRD) suffered record declines in depths to groundwater after that event, and many are curious to compare impacts to groundwater supplies once monitoring data has been collected following the 2022 pumping season.

In 2018, the LENRD added a provision into its groundwater management plan that provides guidance towards steering a meaningful response to drought impacts, with a graduated menu of options dependent upon the severity of the drought. This provision utilizes the U.S. Drought Monitor, and the weekly maps that are created to illustrate the current drought designation, as the basis for providing information or activities that could be implemented to protect groundwater supplies.

A refined map is released on Thursday of each week and the most recent version shows that approximately 45% of the LENRD is currently situated in an extreme drought, or D3 designation. As illustrated by the week-to-week comparison maps, the extreme drought area grew, though at a slower rate than the week prior.

A weather front brought rain showers to portions of the area earlier in the week, but amounts were not significant and geographic coverage spotty and therefore the drought stress continues. Year-to-date precipitation for Norfolk, NE is currently at 10.72”, and is the lowest amount of annual accumulated precipitation ever recorded for this location, with records dating back to 1894. By comparison, the annual accumulated precipitation for this station was 11.80” for the same date in 2012, another year that presented numerous drought related challenges for the region.

The topic has been at the forefront of discussions between the LENRD Board of Directors and staff, given the district’s responsibility to manage groundwater supplies. All high-capacity wells are equipped with flow meters to measure the total flow and annual amount pumped, and some irrigation wells in the district are annually limited on the total amount that can be pumped for irrigation purposes. Limits on these wells have been imposed for one specific reason; that being the need to protect existing groundwater uses while continuing to allow for new and/or expanded uses in some portions of the LENRD. Some well owners are approaching the annual cap that is in place for their well, and many utilize sophisticated tools to help them manage their irrigation scheduling. But given the lack of timely rainfall in many portions of the district the demand for supplemental irrigation is likely to continue until the crop reaches maturity.

In preparation for the future, a group comprised of board members has been designated by the Chairman of the LENRD Board of Directors to serve on the Ad Hoc Drought Response Committee. This committee will be tasked with closely monitoring pertinent pieces of information related to the drought and groundwater supplies. Though the future is unpredictable, the current pattern of deficit precipitation is likely to continue, and the ad hoc committee will be working on options that could be enacted by the board of directors if the negative conditions continue. Even if precipitation patterns return to normal, groundwater recharge may lag in some areas and an enhanced frequency of groundwater monitoring is ready to be implemented to provide scientific information as the basis for groundwater management decisions.

Most Nebraskans understand that drought it not uncommon to our region and given the dry and windy conditions we experienced earlier this year, most of us saw this coming.  While we hope the future holds a wetter pattern, we also recognize that the drought could very well extend into the next year, and maybe even beyond.  Some researchers are describing the dry conditions in western U.S. as the driest in 1,200 years. Though our current situation isn’t comparable to that in the west, the time for proactive measures is upon us to ensure that the long-term viability of the groundwater resource can be protected for the future.

More articles will be published dealing with management options and tools that producers can implement now, for better water efficiency next year. As the LENRD drought committee gets together, future articles talking about the discussions the board is having and if any restrictions are going to be imposed, and more importantly why will be passed along.

Visit lenrd.org or call 402-371-7313 for more information or with any questions.